The Cutting Edge

The warm weather we’re experiencing in northern Wisconsin may not be the best thing for maple syrup producers, but it sure makes the spring willow harvest pleasant. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post images and share some information about how I harvest, sort, store and prepare willow for baskets, trellises and other uses. I’m delighted to be able to post this for your information and entertainment, and it will give me a chance to sit down and rest.

But first, let me introduce you to the tools I use.

The Curved Knife. I cut fine willows (up to about the diameter of a pencil) with a curved pruning knife I bought years ago from A.M. Leonard. With a curved knife I can cut faster than with pruners, and it’s easier on my hands. Of course, this is only true if the knife is sharp. Any knife is safer to use and more effective if it’s sharp. I used to sharpen this knife on a flat whetstone. Now I use a handy carbide sharpener Bill got from Snap-on Tools. I make a few passes through the sharpener before I start cutting, at the end of each row, or any time it feels like it’s my hand doing the work instead of the knife.
The Pruners. Heavier willow I cut with a pair of Felco pruners, which I also bought from A.M. Leonard. Like my knife, I keep my pruners sharp. When I bought them, I also bought a triangular sharpening stone. One side of the pruner’s cutting edge is sharpened at 20 degree angle. The other side is sharpened at a 5 degree angle. When I was learning to sharpen this tool, I think I made it duller instead of sharper. Like anything, you get better with practice. The model I have was designed for smaller hands, and I’ve had them so long I don’t remember what model they are (I guessed on the link). Even so, when I cut a lot of willow with the pruners I almost always get a blister on the inside of my thumb, my hands get tired sooner (especially when it’s cold), and it’s not as fast as cutting with a knife.

I have larger pruners, loppers and pruning saws for cutting really big willow. But most of the harvest is done with these two tools. They’ve served me well for many years, and I really think they’ll last the rest of my life — even when I sharpen them at the end of every row.

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