Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

A Wood Stove — Getting That Warm Feeling

February 2, 2010

We love wood heat. We’ve had wood stoves for most of the last twenty years, in four different houses. The mobile home we live in now is old and leaky, and takes two or three electric space heaters running most of the time on cold nights here in Middle Tennessee to keep it in the low 60s, if the outside temp drops much below 40. Fortunately, we are comfortable in the low 60s.


I am NOT a professional wood stove installer, a lawyer, a fire inspector, an insurance underwriter or any other kind of wood heat expert – just a smart-ass blogger. This is not, no way, no how, presented as a how-to or a recommendation on the following project; rather, it is simply an account of the way I did what I did, and is presented for entertainment purposes only. Got that? Entertainment. Okay, then.

This article will not cure cancer, shrink hemorrhoids with or without surgery, will not get you out of filing income taxes, and it will not make you more attractive to the opposite (or the same) sex, or make you smarter. Well, maybe you’ll get smarter, but no guarantees. As to the rest, forget it. Ain’t happenin’. Just read on, and enjoy it.

I’m glad we had this talk.


Trailers are apparently not supposed to have wood stoves in them, according to The Powers That Be. At least, they are not supposed to have stoves we can afford. We were able to afford a Vogelzang Frontiersman,

Vogelsang Frontiersman

especially after it went on sale last spring.

I thought we could install this stove in such a way as to avoid the hazards inherent in a trailer install, and I went about it with that in mind.

This is a little stove, and one of the few small enough that it would not continuously overheat our small living space (it is specified for “up to 1,000 square feet”).  The instructions that came with it explicitly state in several places that it is not to be installed in mobile homes. Of course, we installed it in a mobile home.

The rationale for the prohibition is apparently twofold: The stoves that are OK to put in a mobile provide for getting their combustion air from outdoors, via a discrete duct and connection between the outdoors and the firebox. Those stoves are all pretty pricey; certainly a lot more expensive than ours.

The Frontiersman has no such provision, but our mobile has plenty of infiltration leaks, including forced-air heat ductwork that is uninsulated, cracked and separated in several places. I have plugged many of the heating vents, but not all, and I still can feel cool air leaking up from most of them. This is definitely not one of those airtight, super-insulated mobiles from the last few years.

It’s a bit more “vintage,” than that. It also has inadequate windows, some of which are cracked or broken, and all of which need to be replaced. They are another source of fresh air, whether we want it or not. I’m not too worried about using up my oxygen, in other words.

The other concern is that this mobile would burn like a cardboard box if a heat source got close enough to a wall. Well, that’s certainly a reasonable concern, and one I share.

To reduce our odds of becoming flaming human sacrifices to the gods of global warming, we put the stove on a ceramic tile floor. In the spirit of over-engineering with which I approach most projects, I put a layer of ¼-inch cement board down over the existing ceramic tiles, and cemented and grouted in another layer of ceramic tiles over that. I covered an area much larger than the one specified in the instructions that came with the stove, as well. A sandwich of ceramic tiles around cement board seemed reasonable to keep heat from the bottom of the stove away from the sub-floor. Ceramic tile is obviously resistant to fire, and “cement board” is fiber-reinforced concrete, with high flame-resistance characteristics and good insulation.

Stove platform detail -- existing tile, below, cement board (not visible), new tile on top

Platform covers more floor area than required; also serves as entryway

To keep the walls of our live-in cardboard box from burning, I put over-engineered, home-built heat shields on the wall behind the stove, and between the stove and the living room where any furniture might go. The rear heat shield consists of a layer of Hardiboard cement board, same as the platform, up more than four feet from the floor, completely covering the existing wall, and a sheet of roofing metal mounted on galvanized steel, “Unistrut” channels, and four vertical runs of ¾” metal conduit.

The sheet metal screws into the conduit, and the conduit is clamped against the Unistrut. The cement-board-covered wall surface is separated from the sheet metal by about a 3 & ¾-inch air space. The upper and side edges of the shield are supported with galvanized steel angle with two-inch legs, about 1/8-inch thick. The steel hardware between the sheet metal and the cement-board-covered wall is intended to be massive enough to dissipate heat from the sheet metal that might otherwise be conducted to the wall.

The Unistrut and two-inch angle were surplus, salvaged from an old antenna tower. The roofing sheet metal was a gift from our nephew, who had it left over from a chicken house project.

Cement board (L), air space (C) and sheet metal (R)

Unistrut detail, rear heat shield

The heat shield between the stove and the living room space is another piece of roofing metal, bolted to cement board, and supported by more, 2-inch angle.

Side heat shield, inner view

Side heat shield, outer view

Both heat shields, early in installation

This morning I over-fired the stove, in the process of learning its preferences, and the stove top got to just above 500 degrees F, which is hotter than it needs to be, but (based on experience with previous woodburners), is not dangerously high. I closed the damper completely, and watched the stove for about two hours. The stove and stove pipe never got hot enough to glow, even in low light, but I kept the fire extinguisher and cell phone handy, being something of a pessimist. The curing stove paint and chimney sealant set off the smoke detector a few times, which is a normal part of stove burn-in. Otherwise, it was a non-event. The stove soon cooled back into the efficient operating range, according to the thermometer.

At the peak of the heat, the sheet metal on the side shield was just a little too hot to touch; on the opposite side, the cement board was just warm. The rear shield, which has the air gap behind it, stayed cool enough to touch throughout, and the cement board on the wall behind it was only slightly warm. The drywall above the heat shield was slightly cool. As I said, the stove temperature dropped back into the normal operating range in about 45 minutes, and stayed there for about two hours, warming the place up enough I had to open a window and a door.

The connection between the stove and the world is single-wall chimney pipe from the top of the stove to the wall, where it connects to a Simpson Dura Plus through-the-wall chimney kit.

The Simpson kit is a very conservative design, consisting of triple-wall pipe, and a thimble (the transition from the single-wall to triple wall, and also the means of penetrating a wall made from flammable materials safely) that offers a lot of thermal isolation between the stack and the wall materials.

The inner wall of this pipe is stainless steel. It is wrapped in high-temperature insulation, and another layer of sheet metal, surrounded by an air space and another wall of pipe. The piece of this pipe that passes the exhaust through the wall thimble is 9 inches long. There is no, single-wall pipe inside the wall. It stops at the inside portion of the thimble, seen below. The single-wall pipe comes from the stove on the left, and seals and is screwed into the transition piece from the kit. From there, it connects to the triple-wall section, and then to the tee, seen in the exterior shot. By the way, the sealant around the outside of the thimble is high-temperature silicone caulk, made for this purpose by Rutland.

Inside portion of "thimble," showing sealing materials

The black material at the joints between the single-wall tubing sections, and between the tubing and thimble, is Rutland stove cement.

It is applied inside and out at each joint, and along the seams of the tubing.

Simpson tee connector, on outside wall. Note un-melted snow in braces and base

This connects outside to a “tee” section (above) that, like all the chimney parts from here up to the storm cap, is also triple-wall. This is an important part of a kit by Simpson made for putting a chimney through a structural wall safely. What would be the vertical leg of the tee, if it were oriented upright, connects to the through-the-wall segment. At the end of the downward-facing (as installed, now, not as a letter “T”) end of the tee is a stainless steel cap, which is secured with screws. This acts as a cleanout access, since there is a straight shot up the tee to the storm cap from there. A piece of galvanized sheet slides into the bottom of the tee support, and serves as a barrier between this cap and anything flammable enough to be a concern if it came into direct contact with the cap. The flange of this sheet is visible at the bottom of the tee assembly in the picture. A chimney brush on ten feet of Fiberglass rod sections will reach all the way to the storm cap from ground level, eliminating the need for a scary, vaudeville ladder act.

The triple-wall chimney keeps the exhaust hot all the way to the top, reducing the condensation that becomes creosote, and also provides maximum draft, which improves the efficiency of the stove.

The triple-wall actually penetrates the building wall, and it passes through the thimble, which provides more layers of sheet metal and air gap between the hot exhaust gases and the wall materials. A note on the picture of the tee installed: The snow seen at the bottom of the tee support – un-melted by running the stove for twelve hours or so — is a good indicator of how effective the insulation is in the triple-wall kit. If it won’t melt snow that close to the exhaust, it probably won’t set the wall on fire.

Triple-wall chimney, standing proudly

The triple-wall stack, seen above, consists of three, 36-inch sections atop the 12-inch leg of the Tee. These sections, by the way, use a “bayonet-style” connection that twist-locks in place, tightly mating all three walls, the insulation and the air space without needing sealant.

I did not trust the screw-in connections of the tee and lower mounting bracket to hold the stress imposed on it when the wind blows on the chimney. Not that the brackets didn’t look to be up to the job, but I wasn’t sure the wall would hold the lag bolts I used to fasten the lower supports. I used the second (also included in the kit) bracket as an anchor point for the guys seen above. Sloping toward the camera, into the lower, right-hand corner of the picture, is a section of ¾-inch electrical conduit, of the same type I used on the rear, interior heat shield.

The other end of the conduit is clamped to a piece of steel angle which is bolted to a porch rafter. This serves as a “dead-man” guy, since it is rigid, and would tend to prevent the chimney from tilting toward or away from the wall. The wire guys are galvanized guy wire that is plastic-coated, and threaded through the holes drilled in the bracket for screws. The wire guys are a little slack, because pulling them tight would only increase the stress downward on the chimney pipe, without a useful increase in support to either side.

Rigid, "dead-man" guy, clamped to porch roof at right

Storm cap/spark arrestor

Between the dead-man and the wires, the chimney is supported in four directions. Sure, a strong-enough wind would still blow the chimney over, but a strong-enough wind would blow the trailer over, too. That’s just a fact of life in tornado country, and I can live with it. My objective was to make the chimney reasonably secure in most conditions.

You will have noticed the top of this stack has a cap, called a storm cap. It keeps rain from falling directly into the chimney, and a wire screen around the opening is supposed to keep burning cinders large enough to start a fire from getting out, as well as birds and other creatures from getting in. This is not a frill or an optional accessory, and it is included in the kit. Like the Dura-Plus sections, it uses a twist-lock means of attachment.

Carbon Monoxide detector -- cheap protection against a silent killer

Besides the wood stove accessories I’ve already mentioned or shown in photos – fireplace tools, fire extinguishers, etc. — there is another one, and it is required: a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector. A subtle defect in the stove or chimney could let CO leak into the living space, which could be deadly. This detector is inexpensive, and runs on batteries, which is important, since one of the times when such a stove would get the heaviest use is during a cold-weather power outage. Along with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, no wood stove install is complete without at least one CO detector. CO is odorless, invisible, silent and an insidious threat. Don’t leave yourself, your family or your pets exposed to that risk.

The point of this article is to relate my adventure in wood stove installation. I hope you have been entertained, but have resisted the impulse to be informed, per the “IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE,” above. Should you undertake to install a wood stove in your death trap of a mobile home (and I’m not recommending that! God forbid!), I hope you will do it safely, and that you will experience the same “warm feeling” I have.

May you know that, even if Mom Nature and Uncle Sam get in the way of furnishing the outside sources of energy that keep you warm in good times, you will have the means to do it for yourself. Safely!

The Woodstove Channel -- My favorite program!

Christmas Eve in the Boondocks

December 29, 2009

Sherry and I had to be sure that all of our fifteen adopted dogs were inside or out, according to their capacity for eating furniture and their widely varying degrees of housebroken-ness.

Once that was taken care of, we put on our light jackets and headed across the road, having already taken our carry-in contributions over in the car, to reduce spillage and preclude attacks by chickens, dogs and goats along the way. Our destination was our niece’s and nephew’s house, the Newlands, which is – literally — across the road. It was Christmas Eve, 2009, in rural, Middle Tennessee.

Our jointly-owned guardian of the immediate neighborhood, Fozzie Bear, a 120-pound Great Pyrenees, head-bumped and shoved us around, often galloping ahead and back to us. Laughing with his whole, white furry body, he steered us safely across our dead-end county road.

The pygmy goats and chickens scattered as we walked down the long driveway at Newlands’ Ark, gently encouraged by Fozzie to clear a path. Rabbit and coon hounds howled from their pens in the back yard. Nobody sneaks up on this place.

The Newlands’ inside dogs, a Chihuahua and a Boston Terrier, came bouncing out to meet us. The cellular tower next door winked its safety beacons festively, looking like a long, slim, galvanized steel Christmas tree. So nice of Sprint and AT&T to get in the holiday mood.

It was family Christmas in the hills — loud, delicious and fun. Extended family, friends, and friends of friends were there, with their children, and probably some of their friends. We exchanged some modest presents, and watched the kids open theirs, and grazed the impromptu buffet. Hugs were swapped, old grudges forgotten, and Sherry and I sat or stood around and let the warm, friendly atmosphere wash over us. As enjoyable as it was, we were a little celebration-weary after about two hours.

Even with all our dogs, home is quieter than this large gathering had become, and we’re not much used to crowds – even friendly ones. We glanced at each other a couple of times, and both of us knew we were looking forward to being back across the road, with our feet up, celebrating our own, quiet, Christmas Eve. We gathered up our jackets, and wished everybody Merry Christmas, above the din of kids and TV, getting a chorus of responses as we stepped outside.

We walked past the few parked cars left in the driveway, picked up a Great Pyrenees escort, peeled off a couple curious goats and sent them running back home, and crossed the road to relative peace and quiet. It was still just cool and a little damp. We had been spared the winter storms that were making news elsewhere in the country, which was fine with us. The Newlands’ dogs and chickens settled down a bit as we got farther away, and our dogs came to the fence to greet us.

Home for Christmas.

When Old Tech Rules: Learning to Use a Scythe

July 6, 2009
The Marugg Company, Tracy City, TN

The Marugg Company, Tracy City, TN

This article is about buying and using a scythe.

Yes, a scythe.

I am an IT guy, a radio amateur, and a fan of technology in general, but I do not limit myself to the technology of modern day — leading edge, bleeding edge, or otherwise. In fact, some “paleotechnology” beats the modern stuff, in the right context. A brace and bit beats a rechargeable drill with a dead battery ten times out of ten, and a crystal radio will get you the local radio stations when an ice storm has the power off and the double-A in your Walkman breathes its last.

Don’t mistake me for a victim of romantic nostalgia.  I have no desire to go back to the time before the Salk Vaccine, or when getting the horse manure off the streets was a major issue, or before indoor plumbing and air conditioning. A Luddite, I am not. Where old tech works, however, it’s just plain stupid not to know how to use it.

Nor am I an environmental zealot. I think man-caused global warming is a fraud, and a pretext for taking away individual rights that have not already been taken in the name of saving the children lucky enough to avoid an appointment with the abortionist. And those rights not stolen in the process of giving welfare to illegal aliens, protecting the public against violent attacks by roving gangs of Christians and Constitutionalists, and preserving the habitats of spotted owls and snail darters, are not in danger from me.

It’s simpler than that. I need to cut some grass and weeds on a slope that is too steep and creepy to cut with the mower deck on my little diesel tractor, and I don’t want to use a gas-powered string trimmer. I hate the damn things. A gas string trimmer is a back-breaking, expensive stick, with a debris-spewing, hissing, whirling dervish on one end, a hot, stinking, noisy, temperamental motor and a tank of highly-flammable liquid at the other; and an exhausted, nearly-deaf, weed-juice-spattered dummy in the middle. Politics and environmentalist feelgood-ism played no part in this decision.

I have not been the weed-juice-spattered dummy since the end of May, 2009, when I brought home my “European-style” scythe, bought in-person at the Marugg Company [], in Tracy City, Tennessee. My gas string trimmer is in the long-term custody of my nephew, who will probably continue to store it in his garage.

I have been on my tractor, the classy little Kubota BX1500, cutting a wide, smooth swath through grass and weeds on open areas that, from a transplanted Middle Tennessean’s perspective, are close enough to level to avoid the feeling that one is risking life and limb. I don’t regret a single molecule of Carbon Dioxide the tractor or I exhaled in that process. That is guilt-free CO2, and Al Gore can get over it.

I researched the subject of the scythe extensively – well, as extensively as one can without leaving one’s chair in front of one’s Internet-connected computer – before I settled on the Marugg scythe. Indeed, I was surprised to discover considerable scythe-related content can be dug up with some judicious use of Ixquick, my Google replacement, privacy-protecting meta-search engine.

Not only is there a lot of content, there is even a bit of controversy among the scythe-using community. Yes, controversy! Not about the difference between American-style scythes and their European counterparts, but among those who agree that the lighter, sportier European models are better than the clunky, heavy American models.

Some Canadians, such as the members of the Vido family, as represented by Scythe Works  and Scythe Connection  approach the subject of scythes with more than a little of the ardor of the evangelist. In fact, their ardor puts me off a bit, as they give the impression that people with questions or concerns about scythes should be treated with some disdain and impatience, and maybe even some arrogance.

I coined a term for this rather zealous branch of the scythe fraternity: Scythentologists. They are impatient with the stubborn, unenlightened masses who prefer to see the scythe as a tool for which there may be quite appropriate uses, but don’t find themselves able to treat it as an object of worship, a tool for artistic expression, or as a focus for an entire school of metaphysical contemplation.

To get a taste of the fervor, self-righteousness and near-contempt with which the unenlightened are treated by Scythentologists, I offer you some email correspondence between your humble blogger and Peter Vido, from the early stages of my research into scythes.

First, my note to Scythe Connection, (which apparently was the wrong place to address my questions anyway, as Mr. Vido takes pains to point out)… Well, see for yourself.

On 18-May-09, at 9:45 PM, Tom Cox wrote:

First, my sizing info: Height: 70 in.; Ground to shoulder: 60 in.; Ground to core of hip joint: 34 in.; “Cubit”: 19 in.

Second, my contact info:

Tom Cox

[contact info]


I am 60 years old, in relatively good physical condition (able to do most of my own odd jobs and grounds keeping chores), and dealing with a hilly, rural acre that is so steep in places that it makes me nervous to try to mow on my Kubota BX1500 tractor. There are also places where the ground stays wet all spring, and, even though it has turf tires, the tractor will strip or rut the turf, even on near-level ground.

I would like to be able to get some mowing work done early on summer days, without stalling until the dew is off. I understand that dew-wet grass is easier to cut with a scythe, which is good for me. By the time the dew is gone, the temp and humidity are into the range where just being outdoors is work, let alone doing anything strenuous.

I have some areas on the slopes where the grass has gotten long (2 – 3 feet), because of heavy rain and my reluctance to tackle it on the tractor. The gas weed eater is slow, noisy, messy and really hard on my lower back due to the asymmetry of the stress of using it, especially while walking the slopes. I get tired of coming in from trimming with a green paste of “yard salad” all over me, with my ears ringing from the noise, and overheated from wearing the chain saw helmet or goggles.

Another area of concern is a steep slope that has become overgrown with blackberries and sapling trees. I can attack it in small doses, downhill-only, with the tractor, but it is a little nerve-wracking and may be somewhat risky due to the hazards of rollover and hitting hidden rocks and stumps with the mower deck that I don’t see from the seat. I don’t want to belt a rock through the window or wall of my mobile home like a line-drive homer.

I doubt that [it is] realistic to expect one blade to do a good job on both the grassy slopes and the berries, so I am focusing on the grass, which I may be able to give to my nephew to feed his goats. In any case, the grass will be gone before it can become a fire hazard, and leaves a less friendly habitat for ticks, which are plentiful here. Goat fodder or garden mulch — at least it’s put to use and out of my way.

If I can mow the tender grass and weeds between patches of berries, I may be able to conquer the latter with the tractor, or, as a last resort, the Woodman’s Pal. With the surrounding grass and weeds out of the way, either method will be easier and safer.

I want a peening set, because the idea of working the metal appeals to my aesthetic sense, as well as to my frugality. I might graduate to a hammer and anvil at some point. I also want to get a suitable stone and holster.

I assume I would be best off with the shortest snath, given my height and the prevalence of sloped terrain. The #0 blade looks like a good one to start with, since I am a learner, and it is inexpensive compared to the average. I can come back for another blade when I know more. Am I on the right track with these choices?

Am I missing anything major? Assuming I get the items listed, what would the price be in US dollars (such as they are, these days), and the shipping to Tennessee (37036)?

Thanks for your time and the benefit of your expertise.

Best Regards,

Tom Cox

I thought that was a fairly uncontroversial approach — conversational, not confrontational, asking questions that would lead me to choose the right combination of products for my application, with (at the time) the intention of spending money with them upon getting my questions answered. Well, silly me. Mr. Vido replies:

I tried to call you last night to respond more comprehensively to your scythe inquiry than I have time for in writing — but reached only your answering machine. (Our phone is far from the house, I’m there once or twice a day at irregular hours and thus there is little point of you trying to call back.)

So instead I suggest you contact Alexander at (which, if you read our catalogue introduction carefully, is where you would have sent your e-mail.) Just two quick pointers: Firstly, I think that given your terrain (and experience) an 80cm blade may be too long. Secondly: Totally regardless of  my involvement in scythe retail (but knowing what I do about the scythe’s potential) if I were you I’d give away (or sell cheaply) both of your machines and obtain suitable scythes to replace them. Your machines have no future to speak of; the scythe does! To help you understand what I’m saying here read (carefully) more information on our website — none of which was inspired by business considerations.


Peter Vido

After scolding me for addressing my questions to the “wrong” party (he is a marketing genius, obviously), Mr. Vido offers me the unsolicited and un-useful advice to “give away (or sell cheaply)” my equipment, including my cherished Kubota tractor, and “obtain suitable scythes to replace them.” Uh-huh.

Gosh, Mr. Vido, which scythe model will carry 400 pounds of dirt or firewood in the loader bucket, grade my gravel driveway with the rear blade, or re-position a 26-foot camper trailer with a 2-inch receiver adapter on the three-point hitch, all the while sipping diesel as if it were expensive champagne?

I am so glad I held off on spending my allotted scythe money until I had taken another look at the Marugg folks’ site and product line. Their small, friendly shop and store are in Tracy City, Tennessee, a cool little town at the end of a pleasant, two-hour drive from our home in the northeast corner of Dickson County, about twenty miles west of downtown Nashville.

Although I had already communicated with Amy Wilson, owner of Marugg with her husband, Allen, by email and phone, we had not met until our arrival in Tracy City around midday on May 26th. Amy made my wife, her sister and me feel welcome immediately, and proceeded to give us a tour of their facility – an unassuming, single-story building with a plaque on the front door that says that “The Marugg Company has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior – 1873.”IMG_1792r1

I am a fan of the history of technology, including that of manufacturing. As a former resident of Muncie, Indiana, I have become somewhat familiar with the late, lamented era of American history in which our country was the manufacturing heart of the world.

Remember when we made stuff? Muncie was home to General Motors plants (well before it became Federal Motors) in the middle and latter parts of the last century, but Muncie’s involvement with manufacturing predates that period, thanks to the plentiful fields of natural gas that permeated that part of the country. Muncie also was the manufacturing site for giant, stationary internal combustion engines that powered manufacturing plants all over the world between the times when steam and water powered factories, and the advent of plentiful electricity. Muncie Oil Engine was a premier manufacturer of huge, slow-turning but very high-torque engines that powered a whole generation of factories for decades before cheap electricity made them obsolete.

Factory buildings of that era had a long, skinny form factor, because the power to operate the heavy machinery that made the goods the world bought was distributed through the plants not by wires, but on implausibly long, rotating spindles, driven at one end by the enormous, slow-moving but powerful engines of the type manufactured in Muncie. Every drill press, trip hammer and bending brake derived its power through belts and pulleys connected to this central spindle.

A model for a manufacturing plant, dating at least from the earliest days of the 19th century, was the Springfield Amory. The armory, which pioneered many of the principles of modern manufacturing, made rifles for the US military. The wooden stocks for those rifles were turned on the Blanchard lathe, which received its power from just such a central spindle. Early photos and drawings of plants like the Armory show the unmistakable signature of the central spindle, connected to surrounding machines by long, serpentine belts and pulleys, whether the power on the business end was from a water wheel, a steam engine, or a Muncie Oil Engine or its kin.

All of the above is meant to explain why I was pleased to recognize the remnants of such a power distribution system in the Marugg plant. Amy didn’t know how the original plant’s power was produced before the electric era (probably brought to Tracy City by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the years after World War I), but I would bet that, in 1873, when the plant was owned by the Swiss family for which it is named, it was powered by coal-fired or even wood-fired steam, and maybe later by a diesel stationary engine.

From bygone days: Knob-and-tube wiring (top), and pulleys from the old spindle power distribution system, both replaced with modern electric power

From bygone days: Knob-and-tube wiring (top), and pulleys from the old spindle power distribution system, both replaced with modern electric power


The electric motor in the background was used to power the spindle system, at some point in the past. Before electricity, power was from steam engines, and then from large, stationary internal combustion engines like the one show here

In any case, some pulleys and spindles were still in evidence in several places around the building. That power system had long been replaced with “knob and tube” electrical wiring, which was modernized by subsequent owners up through the acquisition by Allen and Amy Wilson. Such a tangible connection to history is a pleasure to discover in the midst of modern life.

As Amy gave us a tour and lecture, she was picking up the parts of the scythe that would be going home with me. She measured my height, my “cubit” (yes, cubit – length from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger) and the height from my shoulder to the ground, so I would leave with the right length “snath” (sounds like a made-up name for a Muppet character, but it’s the term for a scythe handle, dating at least from the English of Shakespeare).

As mentioned, there are two main styles of scythes, including both blades and snaths. The American style snaths are heavy; some of them even made from aluminum or steel, and the blades are heavier, too. American blades are made from stamped steel, and seem to rely more on brute strength and momentum to cut, while European blades are hammered from more malleable steels, and can take a very sharp edge, if that is desired.

A European blade whistles through grass or wheat stalks like a breeze, cutting like a sharp knife (not an imitation hacksaw blade, like some cheap steak knife, but a real, smooth-bladed knife), striking the grass at a shallow tangent to the axis of motion, and slicing through a narrow band of vegetation with each swing, but with little more effort than that required just to move the blade through the arc.

An American blade is apparently intended to cut more like an ax or a cleaver, striking the grass nearly perpendicular to the axis of motion, and requiring considerably more effort with each stroke to carry it through the cut material. To appreciate the difference, try cutting a ripe tomato with a very sharp knife, and then try cutting it with a meat cleaver.

If these snath dimensions had been wrong, or if I had bought just any snath from eBay, I’d be hacking and swishing my way through the weeds like a demented golfer, wasting time and energy, and thinking dark thoughts of going across the road to liberate my gas string trimmer from my nephew’s clutches.

Marugg imports scythe blades from European manufacturers, but it makes its own snaths. Amy chose a curved snath for my use, and although I don’t really understand the functional difference between a curved snath and a straight one, mine works well.

Amy Wilson, onwner with husband Allen of the Marugg Company, does some drill press work on my scythe snath.

Amy Wilson, owner with husband Allen of the Marugg Company, does some drill press work on my scythe snath.

Amy takes a phone order from a customer in texas, while I roam and shoot.

Amy takes a phone order from a customer in Texas, while I roam and shoot.

The Marugg people hand-pick their snath material from Tennessee hickory.  Candidates for that role are stacked all over the plant. To get that sporty, Euro curve, they steam a batch of snaths in a tub to soften them, and strap them down to one of the original  pieces of equipment unique to the Marugg shop: a snath bending rig. It looks a bit like a medieval torture device, but I heard no complaints from the couple dozen steamed hickory sticks that were getting their bend fixed in place. They looked comfortable. Maybe they thought it was more like a spa treatment; getting a massage after a soak in the hot tub.

Snath bending rack, overseen by Marugg quality control inspector/mouser

Snath bending rack, overseen by Marugg quality control inspector/mouser

Snath bath -- the hot tub where snaths get steamed before bending

Snath bath — the hot tub where snaths get steamed before bending

The next crucial choice was that of the right blade for my usual mowing jobs. Of course, it had to be a light, sporty, Euro-style blade, but there are hundreds of different styles of scythe blade just in that category.

A scything virtuoso – perhaps an accomplished Scythentologist – who would be cutting wheat or grass in a cultivated field, would want a long, light grass blade that can be made sharp, to cut a wide swath (another Middle English word first associated with scything, apparently). Such a user will not subject this blade to the indignity and abuse of trying to cut coarse weeds, sapling trees, or (shudder) hitting rocks.

Scythe blade inventory, imported from (mostly) Austria -- to match the tool to the job

Scythe blade inventory, imported from (mostly) Austria — to match the tool to the job. Using the wrong blade for the cutting job would be like using the wrong bit in a drill.

I, on the other hand, being of the unwashed and uninitiated, scythe-wise, could be expected to abuse the blade somewhat, in the process of learning the swing, and to satisfy my curiosity as to exactly how thick a sapling or berry cane I could cut with it. Also, as I said in my email to (Professor? Father? Bishop?) Vido, above, my mowing will not be in a level, cultivated field, but in land that has never seen a plow, is constantly prey to encroaching brush, and includes the need to trim close to fences and buildings.

Amy recommended a “brush blade,” which is shorter than a “grass blade,” and with a deeper and slightly thicker back, putting a little more metal between me and whatever I attack with my scythe. I went with her recommendation, and I was not disappointed. I have subjected this scythe to considerable abuse, both accidentally and in the process of learning its limits, and it is holding up well, with some maintenance.

Maintenance is another way the European blades differ from their American counterparts. To sharpen an American blade, the preferred method is either filing or grinding. Filing is slower, but doesn’t heat the blade the way grinding does, changing the character of the metal in ways that affect its hardness and wear resistance, and using up metal at a high rate. One does not approach a European blade with a file, and — Heaven forbid — with a grinding wheel. These methods are simply too rough and unrefined. A bit of filing may be called for to repair a damaged blade, but grinding — never.

Sharpening European blades take a kinder, gentler approach. The metallurgy of European style blades calls for frequent sharpening, even in the field, but with much less metal removed at a time, and a sharper edge attained with less effort. The doctrinaire method of field sharpening is with a whetstone that the user carries in a container that holds the stone(s) in water. The stone soaks up water and stays cleaner, that way, keeping its pores from clogging with metal particles that would reduce its effectiveness.

Sporty, Euro stone holster, complete with belt clip -- holds two stones in water.

Sporty, Euro stone holsters, complete with belt clip — holds two stones in water.

After the removal of metal near the edge with several sharpenings with the stone, however, the cutting edge recedes to the thicker region of the blade, requiring more metal to be removed to arrive at a sharp edge. To thin or draw out the edge, the European blade is peened gently with a hammer and anvil designed for that purpose, or with a combination of tools called variously a peening jig, or a peening apparatus. The latter device, used correctly, allows the novice to thin the blade with calibrated hammer blows that compact the metal, making it stronger, while thinning the edge to allow it to be honed with the whetstone to a thin, sharp cutting edge.  The apparatus comes in two pieces – a fixture, and two cylindrical pieces that are struck against the fixture with a hammer, with the edge of the blade between them.

The fixture is a machined cylinder of tough steel with a central body about two inches thick and six inches long, turned down on a lathe at one end to a spike, and at the other, to a column about the diameter of a finger. The fixture’s spike is driven into a piloted hole in a section of tree trunk or a stout workbench, to keep it steady and to absorb the impact of the peening hammer. The other pieces are cylinders with their centers bored out to fit smoothly over the column in the fixture, but with a face at the opening that is beveled to the angle desired for the blade edge.

The blade fits between the pieces, with the cutting edge resting lightly against the smaller column, just to insure that it is compressed the proper distance toward the back with each stroke of the hammer. One cylinder is beveled for preliminary shaping – usually marked with a single groove around the outside diameter, and the other for the final contour, is marked with two grooves.

The first cylinder puts the initial contour on the edge, or repairs a major dent or crack. The second one puts on the final contour, and is most often used for maintaining the working edge at the proper thickness after a few sharpenings.

Foreground: hammer and anvil combo; far side of front stump: Peening apparatus.

Foreground: hammer and anvil combo; far side of front stump: Peening apparatus.


Various scythe sharpening tools, close up

My scythe budget only allowed for the hammer and anvil combo, which is about half as much as the peening apparatus from Marugg. I have peened the blade a couple of times to what I imagine to be a “good” thickness, but I will be getting an apparatus as soon as I can afford it, to take the guesswork out of that part of the maintenance routine.

I want to go back to Tracy City again as soon as we can afford it, and take more pictures of the Marugg facility. I enjoy being in the company of people who understand that the virtues of technology extend to whatever works, whether it is today’s, or yesterday’s. I also like to be around people who can be enthusiastic about a subject they know well, without being self-righteous about it. There is no hint of Scythentological fervor at Marugg — just friendly enthusiasm.

My next “wish list” will include the peening apparatus, and possibly another scythe blade, or maybe a “scythe sickle” – a short-handled sickle with a scaled-down scythe blade, for close-in trimming around landscape plants and garden beds, and an old-style weeding hoe that looks a lot more effective than the modern ones.

I also want to go back to a superb little restaurant in Tracy City, The Dutch Maid Bakery, It’s only a short walk from the Marugg shop to the restaurant, and you’d be foolish to plan a trip to Marugg that didn’t include lunch there, and some baked goods to go, and maybe a souvenir or two from their gift shop.

So goes my experiment with the centuries-old technology of the scythe. Unless circumstances force other, older ways of doing things on me, I’ll probably stick with factory-made clothes, indoor plumbing, networked computers and the Kubota tractor.


Marugg Trademark

But the scythe is here to stay.

Gratuitous, artsy shot of old machinery in the Marugg plant.

Gratuitous, artsy shot of old machinery in the Marugg plant. Looks like an idler pulley, meant to keep tension on the drive belt, but to allow it to slip if a piece of wood jams the tool.

My new scythe, sized for me and wrapped to travel.

My new scythe, sized for me and wrapped to travel.