Since cutting instruments have become more and more efficient, the billhook is considered a ‘damaging” instrument for cutting purposes. Nonetheles, this tool does the job very well, and properly handled, can be used on its own for clipping bushes and cutting hedges at head height. The cut should be clean and carried out with one quick blow, if possible from bottom to top, in order not to shred the branches with the contact of the tool. The cutting edge should be carefully sharpened with a millstone. A bit of good advice : if you are not at ease with this tool, you should choose to cut with a secateurs, a saw or a two-handled brancher.
But the billhook can serve many other purposes all year round, tasks like clearing, splitting, peeling, or notching all wooden matter. The clever gardener will recouperate the cut wood to make stakes, rails for the peas and beans, or for making lattices and fencing.
The name of this tool comes from the shape of the blade, which ressembles a bird’s beak or bill. In France it is known as a “serpe”, or colloquially as a “sarpe”, a “sermeau”, a “gouet” in the Berry country, or a “sarbiau” in the Sarthe. In the Middle Ages, the “serpier” meant both the instrument and the person who made it. The verbs “sarper”, “serper”, “essarber”, “esserper” or “assarper” are still used in local dialects to this day. The last term has a negative connotation meaning to botch up a job, which comes from the fact that work with a billhook is often seen as rough and ready, even damaging, due to the scars inflicted on the plant by its use. In some areas its use for cutting trees was declared illegal, and one was obliged to use a felling axe for trees.
Since its invention in the Iron Age, the billhook was often the only tool used for all types of cutting, including the fabrication of house furniture. The shape of its sturdy sharp blade varied much from one region to next, depending on what type of cutting it was used for. The fact that many models were stiill produced in the first half of the 20th. Century is due to the intensive exploitation of woods and coppices at this time. These areas, like the Sologne, were buzzing with workers who lived in the area with their families in roofed huts called “culs de loups” or ” wolve’s backsides” ! All the trades of the forest could be found here together – the lumberjack, the charcoal burner, a cutter of carpenter’s wood, a brush-maker, the firewood producer, the woodchopper, and the cooper. Each trade demanded a different form of blade, and a different weight and size of tool. Some craftsmen needed several different models. Other craftsmen who needed this tool included the lattice-maker, the carpenter, the cartwright and the chair maker.
To meet the requirements of all these trades, some catalogues, like the EXPERTON-REVOLLIER offered up to 350 different types of billhook. In 1935 the Forge and Steelmakers TALABOT SAUT-DU-TARN presented around 150 designs of the tool and boasted 3,000 different models in their catalogue. They even made customized billhooks, based on designs sent by clients. Most billhooks have a beak which can be used to “envellop” the vegetation to be cut, to group together the branches, to straighten and pile up the logs, to detach the ivy from the tree trunk, and to cut the slim stems by pulling the blade towards you. The biggest ones are recommended for cutting strong branches and some tradesmen prefer a straight blade for this purpose. The first two models have a beak-shaped blade sharpened at both sides. Some have a hook which allow the worker to clip it to his belt as he climbs the tree.
Although there is less choice of billhooks these days, it remains an essential tool for many professionals. The well-equipped gardener always has one close at hand.
Another ancient tool which has survived the centuries !