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The billhook is a traditional cutting tool used widely in agriculture and forestry for cutting smaller woody material such as shrubs and branches. It is very common in the wine-growing countries of Europe. In other parts of the world where it is used, it was either developed locally—e.g. in China, India, and Japan—or introduced by European settlers—e.g. in North and South America, South Africa, and Australasia. It is also known as the bill hook (although this more usually refers to either a metal or plastic hook used to hold bills, common in the US, or a part of the knotting mechanism on a reaper binder).
The blade is usually made from a medium-carbon steel in varying weights and lengths, but typically 20 to 25 centimetres (7.9 to 9.8 in) long. Blades are straight near the handle but have an increasingly strong curve towards the end. The blade is generally sharpened only on the inside of the curve, but double-edged billhooks, or "broom hooks", also have a straight secondary edge on the back.
The blade is fixed to a wooden handle, in Europe usually made from ash due to its strength and ability to deal with repeated impact. Handles are mostly 12 to 15 centimetres (4.7 to 5.9 in) long and may be caulked or round. Longer handles may sometimes be used for heavier patterns, making the tool double-handed. The blade and handle are usually linked by a tang passing through the handle, but sometimes a socket that encloses the blade. Some styles of billhook may have scales of hardwood or horn fitted to the handle.
Some billhooks (for example the Kent pattern) have a single-bevelled blade, available in both right- and left-handed versions, others (such as the Machynlleth pattern) have dished blades (concave one side and convex the other), or a pronounced thickened nose (such as the Monmouth pattern). The reasons for many of these variations are now lost.
The use of a billhook is between that of a knife and an axe. It is often used for cutting woody plants such as saplings and small branches, for hedging and for snedding (stripping the side shoots from a branch). In France and Italy it is widely used for pruning grape vines. The billhook is the European equivalent of tools such as machetes, parangs, kukris, etc.
The billhook's use as a cutting tool goes back to the Bronze Age, and a few examples survive from this period—for example found in the sea around Greece. Iron examples from the later Iron Age have been found in pre-Roman settlements in several English counties as well as in France, Germany where it is called "Hippe" or "Sechsle" and Switzerland where it is called "Gertel".
The tool has developed a large variety of names in different parts of Britain, including bill, hedging bill, hand bill, hook bill, billhook, brishing hook and broom hook. In American English a billhook may sometimes be referred to as a "fascine knife".
Made on a small scale in village smithies and in larger industrial sites (e.g. Old Ironstone Works, Mells) the billhook is still relatively common throughout most of western Europe. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the larger manufacturers offered up to 200 or so different regional styles and shapes of blade, sometimes in a range of different sizes from 6 to 11 inches (15 to 28 cm) long in 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) steps. The French firm of Talabot boasted in their 1930 catalogue that they held over 3000 different patterns in their archives.
Styles of billhook
Principles of design
Billhooks would have once been made by the local smith to the user's specifications but now sizes and shapes are largely standardised. The handles are mostly rat-tail tang, except the Yorkshire having such a long handle that a tang is just not practical—they have a socket instead. The smaller hooks have variations in the shape of the handle: round, oval and pistol-grip.
Billhooks are almost universally made from ordinary steel of a moderate carbon content. High-carbon steel is not often used since an extremely sharp and hard edge is not necessary, and a slightly lower carbon content makes the hook easier to sharpen in the field. Hygiene and cosmetic appearance are unimportant so more expensive stainless steel is not used.
Billhooks have a relatively thick blade since they are typically used for cutting thick and woody vegetation. The nose is sometimes also thickened to bring the sweet spot further forward and to optimise the chopping action. The edge of a billhook is not bevelled to a very narrow angle to avoid binding in green wood.
The hooked front of the blade makes it easier to catch small branches when stripping them off larger branches and also makes chopping against a rounded object (such as a tree trunk) more effective.
A billhook may vary in shape depending from which part of the UK it originates; there are eleven main types.
Northern and Midland designs (UK)
Favoured by midlands-style hedgers, this is a one handed tool with a 6-inch (15 cm) handle and a 10-inch (25 cm) blade. It has a curved front edge and a shorter straight edge at the back, the front edge being used for general purpose and the back edge kept extremely sharp for delicate trimming, topping off stakes and other work which will not damage the blade.
Used by a small percentage of Midlands-style hedgers, this is generally a two handed tool with a 14-inch (36 cm) handle and 10-inch (25 cm) blade, again it has the curved front and straight back edges. In some cases the handle can be up to 36 inches (91 cm) long. The disadvantage of this variety of tool is its weight.
- Llandeilo and Carmarthenshire:
Have a 9-inch (23 cm) handle and a 10-inch (25 cm) blade. They lack a back edge but have a small notch at the top, known as a hedge grip, which allows hedgers to push pleachers and brash into place without using the hands.
- Pontypool and Monmouthshire:
Have a 6-inch (15 cm) handle and a 10-inch (25 cm) blade but lack the back edge or the hedge grip of the Llandeilo.
With similar measurements to the Pontypool/Monmouthshire style, this style has the least curvature of any hook and is almost a straight blade.
Has slightly more curvature than the Knighton. The top picture shows a Newtown pattern billhook.
Southern designs (UK)
The southern group of hedgers use hooks often designed for other woodland work beside hedging They are all single-edged, and vary from moderately heavy to very light.
- Devon/Dorchester Half Turn:
Has a heavily weighted nose, a 6-inch (15 cm) handle and a 10-inch (25 cm) blade.
Slightly lighter than the Devon with a bulge in the middle which accentuates the curve further up the hook. It has the same measurements as the Devonshire.
- West Country:
Lighter again than the Bristol with its much more traditional shape and identical measurements to the Devonshire.
Very light with a 6-inch (15 cm) handle and a 6-to-7-inch (15 to 18 cm) blade: too light to be used for snedding of anything except the smallest of side-shoots, its main use is the splitting of spars (or spits or broaches, depending upon the region), made from hazel gads for use by thatchers in pegging down the layers of thatch
Also known as brishing hook.
- Block hooks: with a straight or slightly convex cutting edge, they were often used in urban environments for cutting against a wooden block (similar to the back edge of a broom hook, used for trimming the head of a birch besom to length). Often found with a small hook at the back of the blade—useful for pulling the wood towards the user. Dutch hooks commonly have a straight blade and are shown in Renaissance paintings of carpenter's shops, where they would most probably have been used for rough shaping of timber, similar to the side axe.
A variety of other hooks were also made by most edge-tool makers (including pea and bean hooks, gorse or furze hooks, trimming hooks, staff hooks, slashers, pruning hooks) that are closely related to the billhook, although they may differ in shape, width or thickness of blade, length of handle etc. Another very close relation is the meat cleaver—sizes and handle-fixing of these are often very similar to billhooks. In some other European countries the same name is used for both tools, and it can be difficult to identify if the tool is intended for cutting wood or animal bones.
Usage of billhooks also varies from country to country—in Sweden they were often used for cutting fodder for livestock (in the UK a gorse or furze hook would have been used); in France and Italy they were widely used for pruning vines (only recently has wine making come back to the UK), and miniature billhooks were used for harvesting grapes during the 'vendange' in France; in the Netherlands they were often used in a carpenter's workshop (in the UK use of a small hand axe was more common), and they were also found in the coopers' workshops in France (known as a cochoir, and used in the making of wooden barrel hoops). In the Balkans they were used for harvesting maize. In Finland they are used to cut branches from trees and cutting down small trees (known as vesuri). Images of billhooks often appear on coats of arms of towns and villages (particularly in winemaking areas of Alsace, the Black Forest, Hungary and Switzerland) and have been found carved into boundary stones in parts of Germany and onto rock faces in Italy.
Billhooks are currently in common use by thatchers, coppicers, hurdle makers, charcoal burners and often by other traditional craftsmen, farmers and woodsmen. It is also the primary tool for hedgelayers.
In the medieval period a weapon similar to the halberd was called a bill or billhook. It consisted of a pole with a bill-like blade mounted below a spearhead, with spikes added to the back of the blade to increase the versatility of the weapon against cavalry and armour. The English in particular were known for using massed billmen rather than pikes or halberds in the Renaissance period, notably at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, when the Scottish king James IV was felled by an arrow and Bill.
The billhook is an issued tool in some armed forces (see fascine knife). It is used for cutting brushwood for making fascines (brushwood bundles) and gabions—originally for the construction of cannon emplacements, and later for machine gun emplacements. It is also issued to the pioneer corps of most regiments. In the Indian Army, it is given the name 'knife gabion'.
- For an explanation of the term "scales" see straight razor#Parts description.
- State Papers Henry, vol. iv part iv, (1836), 2: Ellis, Henry, ed., (1846), 164, has regem occisum fuisse non longius latitudine lanceae ab illo: Hall (1809), 564.
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- Billhooks.co.uk, the home page of 'A Load of Old Billhooks' - includes information on French billhooks - 10/01/2010 - back on line
- Dartford Town Archive includes a picture of the Iron Age "Hulbury Billhook" - this type of tool is still found today in Morocco
- 1911 catalogue of the Leborgne company - link updated to the new website
- 1920's catalogue of the Leborgne company in France
- Catalogue of French manufacturer Maxime LeLoup c 1920's
- Catalogues from British manufacturers