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Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding

Posted by Madnumforce 
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Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 11, 2012 06:43PM
You know how much interested I am in billhooks. I sent Cliff the four french ones he's going to restore and review, but these were antics, and I want to find out if any good billhook is still made today. Not in France sadly, or they only have one or two models, poorly made (too thick and no taper, so poor balance). Some english companies still make some, but they're too expensive for me. Then I found italian makers, especially Angelo Bergamasco (it's the name of the company, not a craftman). They have a decent variety of shapes, and they seemed to be real world tools. I had a mail exchange with them, only to find it was impossible to get just one or two for them, as they only sell to dealers. But by chance, a french campany works with them, and just glue their label on their products to sell them in France. And I found one of this in a local "home depot" like store.

So it's an italian made (Angelo Bergamasco) Bergamasco type billhook. The blade is made from mid-carbon steel, probably between 1050 and 1080, and as this one is forged, it has a distal taper. the blade is about 11" long, 5mm thick near the handle, 3mm at the end. The handle is made of leather washers, seemingly glued together, and it features a distinctive hook, that helps with retention and allows to hang it to your belt or pocket for very short delayx (really not a way to carry it for a hike, unless you don't mind killing yourself stupidly). It came with no sheath, only a small split plastic to protect the edge. Factory edge was poor according the Cliff standards, but there was no sign of overheating, and it was relatively even. A bit steep and blunt, but you're not supposed to shave with it right "from the box".

I reground the edge a bit a first time, and went cut some vegetation around my workshop. It fared OK, but no more. I have to say it came with a blade not in line with the handle, it makes an angle, and you can feel it in use, feels uncomfortable. But the funny thing is once your hand is wrapped around that handle, it's just like if you had no hand anymore and it melted with your bones and muscles. Due to the "beak", you can grab just like with a hand, and you know by instinct it's a tough tool, and would be a terryfying fighting weapon. Works well on small diameters, but as soon as you attack anything bigger than 2 inches, you know the curvy edge won't penetrate very deeply, and you'll lost the "awe factor" you have on small diameters.

But that was kiddy work for that billhook. So I wanted to give it some blood, push it to the limits. So I took a 15-20 years seasonned holm oak fork I had to "split", put the blade right between the two upper branches of the Y, and started pounding with a 4lb hammer. I didn't count the blows it needed, but it was a real fight. In the end, the fork was split (though because of the beak that was touching the floor before the split was completly finished, I needed a wedge just to crack appart the two halves), the spine took severe deformation, but the edge remained perfectly intact, I swear, not a nick! Here are the pictures of the end result.









Since then I reground it with a thinner convex edge. I'm writting this message with a plaster on my thumb (not convenient). Ouch. It can take a sharp edge. Friends and I should go barbecue in a while, I'll take it to gather fuel and split large logs obtained with the bow saw. I'll let you know. But I can already write: Angelo Bergamasco forged billhook, definately not a safe queen.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 11, 2012 09:54PM
Absolutely awesome Billhook! It almost looks like an Asian Server Sword.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 13, 2012 02:21AM
Madnumforce Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------

> Not in France sadly, or they only have
> one or two models, poorly made (too thick and no
> taper, so poor balance).

No production, or none at all, no local black smiths make them either?

> (really not a way to
> carry it for a hike, unless you don't mind killing
> yourself stupidly)

I would like to see that as a warning label.

> I have to say it came with a
> blade not in line with the handle, it makes an
> angle, and you can feel it in use, feels
> uncomfortable.

The blade is actually off side to the handle?

> Due to the "beak", you can grab
> just like with a hand, and you know by instinct
> it's a tough tool, and would be a terryfying
> fighting weapon.

There are a number of small blades that have leading points which are promoted to turn slashing cuts into stabs, Lynn Thompson even demonstrates them on YouTube, usually making little pop/slaps and showing the results on a side of beef. However a leading cut with that point would be just devestating, it is like a stab with all the power of a chop, I could not imagine that even plate would be able to resist it.


> but as soon as you attack anything bigger than 2
> inches, you know the curvy edge won't penetrate
> very deeply, and you'll lost the "awe factor" you
> have on small diameters.

Do you mean working inside the hook part itself?

> So I took a 15-20 years seasonned holm oak
> fork I had to "split", put the blade right between
> the two upper branches of the Y, and started
> pounding with a 4lb hammer.

That is an insane piece of wood to attempt to split by hand, I have not seen anyone attempt that in a long while without either a chainsaw or actual hydraulic (or other power) splitter. They are insanely dangerous with an axe as they will not split straight and the axes can go skowed easily. However even without the fork, I would not want to try to split that with a knife which could not take a hammer impact because a wood beetle would do almost nothing in an attempt to drive the blade through it.

> But I can already write: Angelo Bergamasco forged
> billhook, definately not a safe queen.

Very nice demonstration of the extremely high level of durability able to be achieved with properly spring hardened mid-carbon steels. Did you have any issues with the handle during that as the impact energies had to be extreme.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 13, 2012 08:30AM
There was a time, about 50 years ago, when there was at least 30 different local shapes of billhooks just for France. There were some huge manufactures, and some smaller shops. But as far as I know, nothing survived. It's a peasant tool, not a undreds hectares famer one. As peasantry disappeared, so did billhook makers. Funny thing to notice, here in Thiers we still produce knives that were attached to peasantry and country life, but because of the structure we have, with lots of small companies doing only some steps on the product, there have always been a place for adaptation, and while the production of these "regional" knives declined, they started making Laguioles and such, to adapt the demand, but could still be able to produce these lot less demanded knives without endangering the whole activity.

Regarding that billhook, yes, the blade is off line with the handle. Not a big deal, nothing that prevents using it, but you feel it when handling, it's weird and a bit uncomfortable. When I hammered it through the fork, of course I felt the shocks in my hand, but as the handle is stacked leather washers, and there is no bare tang showing, it isn't as violent as if it was a full tang. My hand wasn't even numble after that. It just kicks somewhat. In fact, I got tired before making it, and while I was holding the billhook, a friend came help me hammering it. I didn't count how many time we had to hit it, but I would say 30-40 full force swings. But I was confident from the beginning. This is the kind of tool you know won't let you down.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 15, 2012 03:44AM
Madnumforce Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I didn't count
> how many time we had to hit it, but I would say
> 30-40 full force swings. But I was confident from
> the beginning. This is the kind of tool you know
> won't let you down.

I think it is a hard argument to make that spring isn't ideal hardness for such knives as it offers extreme toughness, grindability and even ease of machining (filing) and edge holding on soft materials like woods at a level that you are not going to be sharpening extremely frequently. It would be interesting to see how a medium carbon steel with a small carbide alloy volume would behave, any benefit at all to the increased wear. Or could for example even something like the S series take those extreme impacts without serious harm.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 17, 2012 06:31PM
I used that billhook today again. We were doing a barbecue with knifemakers/cutlers friends, and had to gather a bit of fuel. With that reground razor sharp edge, it did pretty well. I brought a Cold Steel Magnum Kukri Machete as a comparison (bevel reground and recentered, but not much reprofiling on it, still a narrow bevel), and it's no match. The advantage was completly obvious on branches up to about 2", the beak's edge slides to initiate a cut, and the curve finishes it. Most were cut like a hot knife through butter. I have no knowledge of tree species, but I crossed one branch that was extremely difficult to chop. I brought a Bahco buck saw also, and it's obvious that beyond a certain diameter, chopping is an awfull waste of time and energy.

A friend also brought a very large machete, something we call here a "cane saber", and that is usually made to harvest sugar cane. On some chops, with the right angle and the right speed, it was exceptionnally efficient. I cleaned a bit of bramble also, but it was a bit short, and I got nice scratches from the thorns. Also some light batonning, no problem of course. Overall a pretty versatile tool, really designed to delimb and clear small-medium diameter branches and stems. The beak also acts as a hook, which can be usefull. Didn't try detailed work, but that's really not the kind of job a billhook is designed for. Handle smoothed with use, but I got some blisters. I have to say I'm not really used to chop/clear/delimb for a long time, and wore no glove, so it isn't really surprising. Even though I got some nice "kicks" from chopping, there is no lasting numbness after a good shower. I think the kicks are reduced by the fact you mostly chop near the beak, so it absorb a bit of the initial speed and force, and surely the leather washers handle isn't as hard on the hand as a full tang.

Really a nice tool. We can say it has been really been designed by and for "men of actions": hundreds of years of peasantry use, I guess that's an efficient R&D lab.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 17, 2012 08:07PM
Madnumforce Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I brought a Cold
> Steel Magnum Kukri Machete as a comparison (bevel
> reground and recentered, but not much reprofiling
> on it, still a narrow bevel), and it's no match.
> The advantage was completly obvious on branches up
> to about 2", the beak's edge slides to initiate a
> cut, and the curve finishes it. Most were cut like
> a hot knife through butter.

How much of this I wonder is due to the difference in the angles of the edge as the Cold Steel comes with an extremely steep bevel as-boxed?
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 18, 2012 01:09PM
Do you have an easy low-tech way to measure edge angle when calculus isn't possible (convex)?
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 18, 2012 04:11PM
Madnumforce Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Do you have an easy low-tech way to measure edge
> angle when calculus isn't possible (convex)?

When bevels are very wide, it is very easy to measure the angle to a high precision :

bevel thickness / bevel width * 30 = angle

For example :

-billhook is 0.125" thick at top of the bevel (usually spine thickness)
-edge bevel is 0.350" wide

calculation

0.125/0.350*30 = 10.7 degrees

As this is an approximation, if you want to make the next correction (which is about 10%) then just multiply this by 0.9 :

10.7*0.9 = 9.6 degrees

The exact answer using trig is 9.8 degrees, so the first correction is all that is necessary, but quite frankly the angles on knives always varies more than this anyway so the bevel ratio times 30 is all you really need.

Note if the angle of the bevel is so small you can not measure this, then you can do the same thing during sharpening, just put the blade on the stone and raise it until you get the right angle then you just calculate :

height above the stone / width of blade * 30

And this will give you the same edge angle. If you want to get really fancy you can use this to map out a convex bevel, for example put the blade on the stone until you are working the shoulder of the bevel and then do the calculation. Then raise the blade until you are working the middle of the bevel and do the calculation and finally do it when you are on the blade apex. You can then say something like :

The convex bevel start at approximately 5.5 dps in the shoulder, makes a very sharp transition to 15.5 dps by the middle of the bevel and then has a very gradual increase to only 17.5 dps at the apex.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 18, 2012 07:01PM
I know how to use trigo, so I can calculate angle for flat grinds (full flat and saber), and if I know the grinding diameter, calculate for a hollow grind as well (even make it a fonction of distance to the edge). But on the billhook the profile isn't as clear at all, it's forged (so no clean flat surface to use as reference), and convex ground so that it isn't possible to tell precisely where the "flat" ends and where the grind begins. Same with trying to determine it with the blade lying flat, and raising the spine: it rises smoothly without any noticeable step. It's just that past an angle, you know that only the edge is in contact, but you can't tell when for sure.

How do you manage to get the x,y style edge profiles in your reviews?
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 19, 2012 12:28AM
Madnumforce Wrote:

-------------------------------------------------------
> It's just
> that past an angle, you know that only the edge is
> in contact, but you can't tell when for sure.

Just color the edge, make a hint of a pass and determine the edge angle at the point where the steel is removed. If you want you can do this in extreme detail and generate things like this :



However I stopped doing that after awhile when I realized that if I ground a blade which was multifaceted then the behavior would be almost identical with much less information needed so I started using much simpler descriptions like :


it is a chisel grind, hollow relief on the back, the front has a short flat primary grind and a secondary convex bevel which starts at 15 degrees and tapers to 30 degrees (inclusive) at the edge


Usually I will add in the thickness of the tapers if it is dramatically different from the obvious (i.e. in the middle of the two grinds).
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
March 31, 2012 03:15AM
I don't agree too much with the handle but that thing is a very scary beauty!
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 09, 2012 04:24PM
Quote
kuro1
I don't agree too much with the handle ...

Shape, size or materials?
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 10, 2012 12:02AM
Quote
CliffStamp
Quote
kuro1
I don't agree too much with the handle ...

Shape, size or materials?


Shape, that thing come out from the bottom...would act as obstruction.

__________________________________________________________________________________

A man is never too weak or too wounded to fight if the cause is greater than his own life.

---Doctore Oenomaus, in Spartacus---
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 10, 2012 12:26AM
You mean, the kind of stamped hook? But it's precisely made to act as a hand stop! There's a leather cover that's wider, so the skin isn't in direct contact with the steel. It's stiff and thick leather though, but with time it probably softens and takes an ergonomic shape. I guess a bit of neatsfoot oil could only help in the process, but there's no inconvenience to me. And that leather handle surely reduce vibrations, compared to my CGFBM, it's day and night. If I was in a survival situation, of all the knives I have, I would take that billhook, untill I find better. That's a Bergamo shape, I'd like to try the Solita and Lucca as tools (both with more "belly" ), and Fascina as a weapon (more scythe-like, but still a billhook). I would like there are stil french manufactures of billhooks, alas...



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/10/2012 01:18AM by Madnumforce.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 10, 2012 01:02AM
Quote
Madnumforce
You mean, the kind of stamped hook? But it's precisely made to act as a hand stop!

It is curious to see the difference in regards to these kinds of issues. Mora's for example typically do not have guards, though they have added some recently. For any working knives, the cost of safety in regards to injury is now extremely high (here anyway) as compensation costs for injuries while working is one of the main over heads for any company.
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 10, 2012 04:41AM
Quote
CliffStamp
Quote
Madnumforce
You mean, the kind of stamped hook? But it's precisely made to act as a hand stop!

It is curious to see the difference in regards to these kinds of issues. Mora's for example typically do not have guards, though they have added some recently. For any working knives, the cost of safety in regards to injury is now extremely high (here anyway) as compensation costs for injuries while working is one of the main over heads for any company.

I see the same problematic shape in every modern machete handles as well. The Combo how the handle is put together its okay but in a wet environment you really need to take care of. Even if the handle and ergonomic are good enough, I still prefer a more longer handle with 1 hole on it.

__________________________________________________________________________________

A man is never too weak or too wounded to fight if the cause is greater than his own life.

---Doctore Oenomaus, in Spartacus---
Re: Italian billhook, heavy hammer pounding
April 10, 2012 03:10PM
Quote
kuro1

I see the same problematic shape in every modern machete handles as well.

About 10-15 years ago I did some work with someone who was researching injuries in a fish plant due to cutting injuries with knives both in use and in sharpening. I didn't work on the entire project, just popped in to discuss it from time to time. Towards the end both the knives and sharpening systems were becoming very awkward to use due to trying to minimize injury as much as possible. This was effecting many aspects of productivity but right now the cost of injury is excessive (here anyway) when it happens on the work place. I am actually a little surprised that makers/manufactures of knives do not take more care here as often there are designs which are fairly unsafe for the promoted purpose and quite frankly if someone does get injured a law suit is not out of the question. For small companies, even a single suit is not something trivial as you can end up defending a huge claim easily as they will claim not only loss of productivity for what they can do now (or before the injury) but all the things they could have been able to do in the future had they not been injured at your negligence. Tactical folders with really insecure locks are just one such example, as are survival knives which break under very light impacts.