Wednesday, January 1, 2014


I write this with the realization that I may be the only person in all of California (or beyond) who spent part of his New Year's Day maintaining the tools of my trade - shepherding, woodcutting and farming tools.  This day is one of those unusual days in which I have absolutely no obligations - unlike Christmas and Thanksgiving, I'm not cooking a big meal.  After a leisurely morning, I decided that I would sand and oil the wood handles on my important tools - and sharpen those that needed sharpening.

I enjoy this task, as it only happens during the time of year when I can catch my breath a bit.  During the late winter and early spring, I'm busy with lambing.  As spring progresses, we're shearing sheep, weaning lambs and irrigating pasture.  Summer is consumed with irrigation, pasture rotations and sheep work.  In the fall, we're turning rams in with the ewes, harvesting lambs, and preparing for winter (which includes cutting and stacking firewood) - and this year's autumn work included lambing at McCormack Ranch.  For a few weeks in December and early January, things slow down - giving me a chance to do some of the maintenance work necessary to keeping the tools of my trade in good working order.

Today, I maintained the following eclectic mix of tools:

  • Leg crook (used for catching sheep).
  • Rocha hoe (a hoe made by a Mr. Rocha from Ripon, CA - I carry it in my truck to chop thistles and other invasive weeds).
  • 2 single-bit axes - for chopping kindling and breaking ice on water troughs.
  • McLeod hoe - a fire rake/hoe that I carry during fire season.
  • Grape hoe (or sopa, as an Italian neighbor called it) - for chopping weeds and small shrubs at ground level.
  • 2 square shovels
  • Scoop shovel
  • Pitch fork
  • Round-point shovel
To maintain the handles on these tools, I sand them with 60-grit sand paper.  I prefer handles without varnish - the varnish eventually peels, and the slick handles cause more blisters.  Sometimes I'll use a propane blow torch to burn the varnish off of new handles.  After sanding the handles, I use a rag to rub in linseed oil.  The oil keeps the wood handles from drying out and protects them from moisture and sunlight.  I also apply a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil to the handle ends (which are more likely to absorb moisture and cause cracking).

Just a note on linseed oil - when I was a kid, I nearly burned down our barn by leaving some rags in a pile after using them to apply linseed oil.  Spontaneous combustion actually happened!  Today, I read the safety notice on my can of linseed oil (imagine that, reading the instructions after more than 30 years of using a product) and learned that I should lay my rags out flat for at least 24 hours to allow them to dry.  In the process of drying, linseed oil creates heat - which can cause the rags to combust.  After drying, I'll wash them in a bucket.

After I work on the handles, I sharpen anything that needs sharpening.  I like to keep my hoes and axes as sharp as possible - a sharp tool means less work!  I also sharpened my pocket knife (I carry a Leatherman Wingman) - a sharp knife is a safe knife, in my experience.

Over the coming couple of weeks, I'll also take stock of my lambing supplies - I'll need to order ear tags and o-rings for docking and castrating lambs.  I'll order marking paint and iodine too - I hate to run out of these things in the midst of lambing.  I'll also enjoy my newly maintained tools!  Happy new year!

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