The billhook is a traditional cutting tool used mainly in European agriculture, but also common through out most of the world where it was introduced by European settlers, e.g South America and parts of Asia, or developed independently e.g. in Japan and West Africa. The blade is usually made from a high carbon steel in varying weights and lengths, with 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 rectangular secondary blade on the back.
Typically the blade is 20 - 25 cm (8" - 10") long with a wooden handle (usually made from ash due to its strength but unique ability to deal with repeated impact) of 12 - 15 cm (6" - 8") which may be caulked or round, and usually fitted by a tang passing through the handle or with a socket that encloses it (although some had scales of hardwood or horn fitted - more common in other countries but often found on 'gentlemen's' or 'lady's' tools - and now often found on cheap imported hooks). The edge of the billhook is bevelled at a relatively obtuse angle in order to avoid binding in green wood. Some hooks, e.g. the Kent model, have a single bevelled blade, available in both right and left hand versions, others e.g the Machynlleth (Wales) have dished blades, or a pronounced thickened nose, e.g. the Monmouth pattern, the origins of which are now lost.
Perhaps best thought of as half way between a knife and an axe, it is often used for cutting thick woody plants such as saplings and small branches and for "snedding" (stripping the shoots from a branch). In France and Italy it was widely used for pruning of grape vines.
The billhook's use as a cutting tool goes back to the Bronze Age and a few examples survive from this period (e.g 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 and Switzerland. It is the European equivalent of all large woodland utility knives such as machetes, parangs, khukris, etc.
The tool (being of an ancient design) has existed for so long it has developed a large variety of names in different parts of Britain including: Bill, Billhook, Hook bill, Hedging bill, Hand bill and Broom hook. Made on a small scale in village smithies and in larger industrial sites (e.g. Fussells of Mells) the billhook is still relatively common throughout most of western Europe. During the nineteenth and early twentieth 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" long in 1/2" 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 standardised. The handles are mostly 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.
A billhook may vary in shape depending from which part of the UK it orginates; there are nine main types.
Northern and Midland Designs
Favoured by midlands style hedgers, is a one handed tool with a 6" handle and a 10" blade. It has a curved blade at the front and a shorter straight blade at the back, the front blade being used for general purpose and the back blade 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" handle and 10" blade, again it has the curved front and straight back blades, in some cases the handle can be up to 36" long. The disadvantage of this variety of tool is its weight.
Have a 9" handle and a 10" blade they lack a back blade 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.
Have a 6" handle and a 10" blade but lack the back blade or the "hedge grip" of the Llandilo.
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 picture above shows a Newtown pattern billhook.
The southern group of hedgers use hooks often designed for other woodland work beside hedging - all single edge they vary from moderately heavy to the very light.
- Devon/Dorchester Half Turn:
Has a heavily weighted nose, a 6" handle and a 10" 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.
- Spar hook:
Very light with a 6" handle and an 8" blade, it could be used for snedding of felled limbs, but its main use is the splitting of spars (from hazel) for use by thatchers
- Block hooks: with a straight or slightly convex cutting edge, they were often used in urban envonments for cutting against a wooden block (similar to the back blade of a broom hook, used for trimming the head of a birch besom to length). Often found with a small hook at on the back of the blade - useful to pull the wood towards the user. Dutch hooks commonly have a straight blade and are shown in rennaissance paintings of carpenter's shops (where they would most probably have been used for rough shaping of timber - c.f. use of 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 differ in shape, width or thickness of blade, length of handle etc.
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.
Use as a weapon
In the medieval period the billhook inspired a military weapon also known as a bill / billhook, similar to the halberd. It consisted of a pole with bill-like blade mounted below a spearhead with spikes added to the back of the blade to increase the versatilty of the weapon against horsemen and armour. Some good examples can be seen in the museum at York. A "pruning bill" is described as the weapon used in the Pierre Rivière parricide case of 1835. Also used for cutting brushwood for making fascines and gabions, and thus an issued tool in some armed forces (see fascine knife). Originally for creating cannon emplacements, later used by machine gun units. Also issued to the pioneer corps of most regiments.
Names for Billhook in other languages
Serpe, Serpette, Croissant, Vousge, Poudo (FR), Haumesser, Hippe, Gertel, Praxe (also Braxe) (DE), Roncola, Pennato, Mannaia (IT), Snoeimes, Hakmes (NL), Tajamata (ES), Natagama (JP), Vesuri (SF), Metszõkés (HU), Golok (Indonesia), Fascine Knife (USA), Katte (CY), Dah (Burma), Faskinkniv (SW), Koser, Kostur (BG), Kladephtéri, Kladeuterion, Drépanon (GR), Cosor, Cosoras (R), Choser, Cosser, Chosor, Kosir, (Croatia/Serbia), Mossuranto (Venice).
- http://www.billhooks.co.uk - the home page of 'A Load of Old Billhooks' - include information on French billhooks
- http://www.dartfordarchive.org.uk/early_history - Dartford Town Archive, includes a picture of the Iron Age "Hulbury Billhook" - this type of tool is still found today in Morocco
- http://www.burgonandball.com/dbpages/scythes/master.php - Burgon and Ball Ltd, Agricultural Tool Suppliers with billhooks for sale
- http://www.lingfieldreserves.org.uk/hedgelaying.htm - Page containing a picture of a modern hedgelayer's tools (billhook visible at bottom left)
- http://www.leonelliattrezzi.com - the home page of one of Italy's remaining manufacturers of Billhooks
- http://www.panzeri-tools.it/italian.htm - another useful edge tool maker from Italy
- http://www.angelo-b.com/ab/catalog/ - yet another good Italian edge tool maker
- http://www.fussells.org.uk - the Fussells Iron Industry Society website
- http://market-farming.com/gardening-hand-tools.faq - USA list of useful addresses to source hand tools
- http://bulldogtools.co.uk/docs/home.php - Bulldog Tools - used to be a good maker of billhooks
- http://www.spear-and-jackson.com/ - maybe you can get their web site to open - one of UK's oldest edge tool makers
- http://www.timelesstools.co.uk/ - good source of second hand tools - expensive, but no more than a new billhook
- http://www.oldtools.co.uk/tools/edge_tools/edge.tools.php - another good source of secondhand tools
- http://www.pennyfarthingtools.co.uk/ - another recommended source of old tools - well worth a visit
- http://moulinafer.free.fr/Martinet.htm - useful French web site on the edge tool forges of France
- http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/inventai/itiinv/syam/ - Forges de Syam - one of the last water powered forges in France - rolling steel strip, but similar to the process used in edge tool industry
- http://perso.orange.fr/forges-moulins/CatalogueP14.htm - old (1920's) catalogue of the Leborgne company