Thursday, January 30, 2020

Homemade cradle

A cradle is an attachment to a scythe which gathers the grain stalks as they are cut. Without a cradle, cutting grain with a scythe is not possible. The scythe will scatter grain stalks in a swatch without any organization, and the time spent picking up each one is longer than if the scythe was discarded for a hand sickle. To cut grain with a scythe, you need some kind of cradle.

The multi-fingered grain cradle is a purely American development, appearing sometime in the late 1700’s. Using a cradle, a person can harvest two acres of wheat per day, about triple the production of a hand sickle. Cradles were still used well into the 20th century, and the last US patent for a grain cradle is from 1924.

I made this cradle a few years ago and it has been working fine for me.  This is an old american style scythe and the cradle is mounted by a simple steel bracket to the hardware already being used to mount the blade.
Today, however, it is difficult to find a serviceable cradle. Not many have survived without rotting, or warping, or both. The following is a method I have used to make grain cradles. If you have access to a table saw, wood glue, and a few clamps, it’s a pretty easy project.

The most intimidating part of a cradle are the fingers, which need to be long, strong, and curved. Historically, the fingers were steam-bent, but we’re going to use the technique of wood lamination. To make the fingers, you’ll need a piece of wood at least 3” thick and clean of knots. Almost any kind of wood will work. On the table saw, rip out three thin strips, around 3/16” thick, and as long as the blade of your scythe. We’re going to make a single, curved lamination with these strips to cut the fingers from.

Set up some blocks on a countertop and clamp the strips down. Adjust the blocks until the curve of the lamination matches the curve of the blade. When you are satisfied with the dry fitting, spread glue onto the strips and clamp everything down again. Clamping laminations always gets messy, and the glue tends to make things slide around. So be prepared with extra clamps, blocks, etc. Try to get even clamping pressure across the wood surfaces.

This fingers ended up 5/8" x 5/8".  The wood is douglas fir, and it's a little too stiff.  You need the fingers to be a little flexible so they can be adjusted to line up with the blade.
When the glue is dry, remove the clamps and clean up the blank. Working carefully on a table saw, rip out strips around 5/8” wide. These will be your fingers. Make four or five fingers, depending on your own preference. Historically, grain cradles had anywhere from three to five fingers. I have found four to be perfectly satisfactory.

Next, make a post to hold the fingers. Begin with some clear, strong wood about 1½” x 1½”. Cut notches every six inches for the fingers and glue them in place. Finished fingers should be one or two inches shorter than the scythe blade.

Mounting the fingers to the post.  I am using only glue and that has worked just fine for me.  It wouldn't hurt to use fasteners or add some wooden bracing.
The post and fingers will need to be mounted on the scythe. In the case of an American scythe, fabricate a steel bracket that can be slipped under the two nuts that hold the scythe blade hardware in place. In the case of an Austrian style scythe, you will have to fabricate a wooden bracket coming off of the scythe handle.

The post mounting, using two 10-24 bolts.  I don't want to drill too many holes through the handle, but I think it will still be strong enough.

Here's how I mounted the cradle to an american scythe.  I just made a bent steel bracket out of 3/4" wide stock and slipped it under the bolts that hold down the blade.  The strings will simultaneously adjust the fingers and add additional strength to the mounting.
The lowest finger should be around two inches above the blade. I have made mine with about a six inch gap, and they have worked just fine. But reliable historic sources recommend two inches.

Mount the fingers so that the tips are a little bit behind the scythe blade. The final adjustment will be accomplished with string running from the scythe handle out to each finger. The strings should attach to each finger about six inches out from the post. Tighten the strings until the tips are in alignment with the back side of the blade. The fingers need to grab each stalk of wheat that will be cut by the blade, without grabbing excess stalks.

The finished cradle.  This is the first cradle I've built for an Austrian style scythe.  Note how the post has been braced back to the scythe handle.  My impression is that a finger-style cradle might work best with an American style scythe, which has more curve and a shorter handle.  I'll find out at the 2020 harvest.
In the field, observe closely how the cradle and scythe blade are working together. If there are a significant number of stalks being cut and not cradled, or a significant number of stalks being cradles and not cut, the whole thing gets messy in a hurry. Be prepared to raise or lower how you hold the tool, so that everything lines up with the standing wheat. If the crop is standing straight, cradling goes very well. If there is any kind of lodging in the stand, cradling may not work well. If you have a choice, try to work with stalks leaning slightly away from you. It’s nice if you can work with the wind at your back.

There are two options in how to swing a cradle in the field. The most elegant is to cut and deposit the wheat in one stroke. Swing the cradle as you would an ordinary scythe. When the last stalk is cut, stop the swing abruptly without raising the blade from the ground. The cradled stalks should fall over in one neat bundle. The next swing of the cradle will deposit the next bundle perfectly in line with the previous. Now it is easy to come by later and gather the cut grain into whatever sized bundles you want.

The second option is to turn the blade sharply upwards after the last stalk is cut. Now all the wheat from the swing is securely in the cradle, and you can drop it anywhere you want. The mower might choose to make piles of three or four swings each, enough for one bundle. This method works fine but is slightly more physically demanding than the former.

Have a great harvest!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Plansifter Project

I built a planetary sifter, or plansifter, this month to replace the bolting reel sifter I had been using for the past few years.  The bolting reel had trouble in the collection system, where flour would pile up underneath the reel and then get pushed over into the bran chute.  The problem was not acute, but it always bothered me that some of the flour was going out with the bran.  Hence the plansifter project.

A plansifter is a box filled with sifting trays.  The box hangs on flexible canes, and a motor with an intentionally out-of-balance counterweight causes the whole things to move in a circle.  The target is a gyration of 240-250 rpm, and a gyration of 62-65 mm.  See for more information.

My unit is running at 250 rpm but the gyration is only around 40 mm.  I wish it were more but I'm afraid to put more counterweight on.  Right now I have 18 lbs of counterweight flying around about 6" from the shaft, which is already quite terrifying to me.  So for the time being I'll keep things as is.  However, the flour did not really move at all until I was well over 12 lbs of counterweight.  So if I ever need the unit to move more flour I will add more counterweight.

Here is the formula for gyration (thank you

The weight of the counterweights required will be equal to:
m = (M x r) / R

m = required total weight of all counterweights in pounds
M = total vibrating weight of screen (basket + mechanism + effective material load) in pounds
r = the required radius of vibration in inches
R = the radius from centre line of the mechanism shaft to the centre of gravity of the counterweight in inches

My plansifter is a simple two-part separation.  I built two screens, which I think have more than enough capacity for my 200 lb/hr mill.  The box is nominally 24" x 24" x 12".   I built the box a little taller than needed in case I want more screens at some point.  My target is 95% extraction and I currently use a 28 mesh stainless steel screen with an opening around 700 microns.

The new plansifter as installed.  I use a shop dust collector to create a slight negative pressure in the unit, which keeps my mill room remarkably dust free.  Flour comes out on the left and bran on the right.  The flour enters at the top right and is dumped directly onto the top screen.  Anything that falls through the screen gets pushed off to the side by the tray cleaners and falls to the bottom of the box.  The bran flows to the left and then drops down to a second screen, where it starts flowing to the right.  Anything that goes through the second screen also falls to the bottom of the box and out the left spout.  Basically you just have to seal up and baffle everything so that there is no choice about what media ends up where.  The constant shaking of the plansifter ensures that product will continue to flow.

Startup of the plansifter is a little dicey.  If it bumps the mill the unit will bounce hard and possibly cause damage.  But once it is up and running the unit is rock solid and stays put.  Apparently stable startups are an issue with commercial units as well.  See

Leveling things off during the installation.  The wooden clamps I made for the canes worked so-so.  The top is held down with four bolts.  Prior to putting the top on, I add shims so that the tray stack is firmly clamped together.  The trays have ordinary wool felt strips between them to seal things off.  Of course, there needs to be a flexible connection for flour going in and out, since the whole thing is going to be shaking at 250 rpm.  I use an old long-sleeve shirt as a gasket between the mill and sifter.

Installing the plansifter.  It hangs from the ceiling on four 3/8" fiberglass fence posts.

Here is my first sifter tray with tray cleaners and screen installed.  This style does not use backwire.  The bottom of the tray is perfectly flat.  The screen cleaners bounce around, keeping the screen clean and pushing the flour off to the sides.  Cleaners were easily purchased after contacting the folks at Filip in Germany:  The wood strips on the side are slotted so the flour can slide off.  See

Trial fitting.

Gluing up a shield for the counterweight. Ultimately I glued it into place and it became part of the bracing for the counterweight shaft.  There is a nice stave calculator at  Those weights being used to hold it down for gluing are the counterweights.  They are held in place on two 3/8" by 6" bolts off of the steel 3/4" shaft.

The reduction drive and counterweight shaft.  I had to use a 15" pulley to get down to the target of 240-250 rpm for the counterweight.  This size pulley weighs more than the motor, which is unfortunate.  The heavier the unit, the heavier the counterweight needs to be.  Ideally I would start out with a 1200 rpm motor which would make the reduction easier and lighter.
Machining the keyway on a harbor freight drill press.  Not very precise work, but good enough for a keyway.  I wanted everything to be as strong as possible, not knowing exactly where things would be stressed.

Here is the final motor and counterweight installation.  It's a 3/4" shaft.  I found two 3/4" gear hubs, which I drilled and tapped to accept a 3/8" bolt.  The hubs are held to the shaft with a square key and set screws.  The counterweights just bolt into the hubs.  Spacers are some thick-wall steel tubing.  The motor is an 1800 rpm 1/4 or 1/3 hp unit with an adjustable pulley to tweak the shaft speed.

Here is what it looked like the first time I fitted up a sifting frame.  Everything is perfectly flat, with the exception of the box floor.  If you look close at the bottom of the photo you can see where I am missing baffling.  I figured this out after the first run when I found flour coming out with the bran.

The plansifter needs to be strong--it will undergo a great deal of strain as it is being gyrated.  I chose to make corners with outside hardwood reinforcers.  Everything is glued and screwed.  The reinforcing stringers on one end will help support the counterweight shaft and bracketing.

First frame going together.  The side pieces have some space underneath to allow the flour to fall through.  I used a dado head on a radial arm saw to make the corner joints.  After gluing the frame up, I nailed a piece of 3/16" plywood to the bottom.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Compost Spreading

After getting soil tests done on the Newman Rd field in July it became clear that the nutrients were deficient.  Both potassium and phosphorous were seriously deficient, so I looked around for some manure.

Starting in August I went looking for a supply, and ended up getting some pretty nice composted manure.  The first three loads were from a cow farmer and fairly fresh.  Most of the loads came from a friend's horse farm and had been turned.

Working with a couple different spreaders until I purchased an IH 550 spreader (about 185 bushels I think), I managed to spread a couple hundred tons onto the field.  I have high hopes this will help the yield in 2020.

The IH 550 spreader.

The IH 550 spreader in action.

This John Deere spreader was borrowed for a portion of the spreading.  It could not hold very much and I returned it without doing too much work with it.

My neighbor Jim loaned me his dump trailer to move some of the compost.  What a great rig!

This is an old International spreader that I rented from the cow farmer.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

December Checkup

I did not keep track, but there was plenty of rain in the Fall of 2019.  Fortunately, it was more spread out than last year.  Even more importantly, the wheat was more established.  Here is what the Wisconsin No 2 looked like on December 7.  No problems it looks fine.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Winter Wheat Planting

I spent 2019 thinking that the fall planting would go in the north end of the field.  This part of the field had nothing since the 2018 spring crop of Marquis, only successive plantings of oats and peas.  I figured the south end would have to wait for dryer conditions.

However, I was able to get into the south end by early July and worked it up several times.  Each time I killed more weeds and I felt the soil looked pretty good.  I also put about ten loads of compost down, and it looked pretty clean after the rain came.  So I decided to put the fall planting in the south end.

I did considerable research and hemming and hawing over the planting date.  Conventional wisdom said I should wait until after September 20.  I posted the question online and all the academics were against planting earlier than the 20th, due to the risk of hessian fly and aphids.

I could not get a good answer to the simple question, "what am I risking by planting earlier?"  I know that last year the stand was not well established, and I suffered a lot of winter kill.  Old publications say wheat should be planted in late August or early September.  The amish I met out in western WI planted in late August, and a couple people online said the same thing. 

I decided to plant on Sept 9.  I know from watching previous years that if it started raining in the second half of month, all options would start to look pretty bad.  In practice, this is what happened.  Rain started around Sep 15, and I don't know of a single local farmer who planted winter wheat in 2019.  The rains just caused the planting window to close in.

It ended up that I planted 1.7 acres of Wisconsin No 2, at a rate of 130 lbs/acre.  I was using notch 20 on the drill.  I suspect that plumper wheat would have ended up lower than 130.  At any rate, I would have preferred around 110.

Although at this point I'm getting sick of all the small plots of seed that I'm growing out, I still continued with the Krymka, Goldcoin, Red May, and Early Noe.  They are tucked in to the Northeast corner.

The test plot/grow out area in the NE corner.

Tire placement, for reference.

The IH 330 really ran well this season.

Krymka is the largest planting, the most northerly of the plots.

Goldcoin is all the way east, and between the WN2 and Krymka.

Red May is just west of the Goldcoin.

I don't know what I will do with the Early Noe, but I want to maintain the seed stock.

Notch 20

Monday, July 29, 2019

2019 Wheat Harvest

The 2019 harvest on the Newman field was an overall bust.  The excessive rain combined with the poor soil nutrition meant that I basically maintained seed stock, and not much more.

Wisconsin No 2 came off on July 29.  It was around 14.8% moisture, excellent considering all the weeds I had to run through the combine.  By the time it was cleaned I had exactly 250 lbs of trustworthy seed.  There were a couple odd bags of "not quite pure" seed for flour, but otherwise it was just those five bags from a planting of 0.7 acre!  Aaargh...

I took the Vavilov off on the 30th.  It was much weedier and did not have any beautiful clear stretches like the WN2 had.  Although it was very wet, I put it out on a tarp in the sun and it came down beautifully.  After a few hours it was down to 12.1% mc.

Straw was baled on August 1, 42 bales worth.

The Marquis took forever to dry down enough for harvesting.  I probably tested with the combine at least three times.  It finally came off on August 5th or so, yielding about eight bags.

On August 3, I cleaned out the home test plot, including wheats Progress, Champlaign, Purplestraw, and Early Red Fife.  I also harvested the Wisconsin No 5 oats (Swedish Select), which looked amazing.

All the java wheat was harvested by sickle.  Although this was just a grow-out year for seed, I'm actually quite excited about it.  The java grew better than anything else this year.  The projected yield was something like twenty bushels per acre, which for this field and in comparison to other 2019 crops was incredible.

Drying out some seed stock in the sun.  Although this is a pain, if the weather is good it will do a great job of drying out wheat.
Swedish Select, AKA Wisconsin No 5 oats.  Big, beautiful stalks!

The New Holland baler was a real joy to work on.  It did not do a perfect job, but I found good information online and made decent progress on it.  I am hopeful it will run very well next year.  I baled both straw and hay from the Newman Rd field.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


It's mid-May and still no sign of good soil conditions.  I did some hand-working of a small section and put a few potatoes in.  These are some purple spuds I traded for through the Kenosha Potato Project.  Supposedly the colored-flesh potatoes are healthier.  Can't wait to see how they taste!

It's about a 15-foot row to the East of the wheat testing area.