What Is A Billhook? What Is A Billhook Used For?

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A billhook is a traditional tool used for hedge laying, forestry and gardening amongst other uses. A billhook is a type of green tool called an edge tool; a tool with an edge that is generally used to cut green wood (living wood - wood which hasn’t dried).

The tool is used in a chopping action to cut bushes, shrubbery and small branches.

A billhook consists of a handle and a blade with a bevelled cutting edge running along one edge, sometimes both edges. The blade is often curved at the top end to form a hook shape. The handle which is virtually always wooden and the core of the blade are inline. The majority of billhooks have a blade length between 7” – 12”, a billhook with an 8”-10” is a typical size.

The billhook is sometimes referred to as a ‘bill, ‘hand bill, ‘hook bill’, ‘hedging bill’ or ‘hedge tool’.

The billhook has been used for centuries with roots back to Roman times. During the thousands of year of use in many different countries the tool has evolved in to many different forms.

In the UK nearly every region of the country developed its own pattern of billhook. Some of the variations in design were subtle and some of the variations were strikingly different. Given the relatively small size of the UK I find it quite amazing how many different types of billhook there are.

What is a 'Devon' Billhook?

The pattern of the ‘Devon’ billhook has a bevelled edge on one side of the blade with a blunt hooked end.

devon billhook

The distinguishing feature of the Devon billhook is it has a notch at the base of the blade. There has been much speculation as to what this notch was used for. There are two main theories, theory one is it was used to help tie a strap to the billhook so the user can hang the billhook from their wrist, theory two is the notch was sharpened and used for stripping material such as bark, willow and thorns. From attending wood shows, the majority of people I asked thought it would have been used for stripping. From speaking to a long standing maker of billhooks, he informed me he had found an old Devon billhook with a strap tied around the notch area. I have also heard of a Devon pattern billhook with a sharpened notch. My personal theory is originally the notch was invented to cater for one of these theories and from that invention it was later found the notch was very handy for the other theory.

double edge billhook

What is a 'Double Edge' Billhook?

The ‘Double Edge’ billhook design has a bevelled edge on both sides of the blade. One edged side has a hook to the end. The other side has a shorter length of edge which protrudes from the main structure.

knighton billhook

What is a 'Knighton' Billhook?

The ‘Knighton’ pattern of billhook is a bill without a hook. The Knighton billhook has a bevelled edge cutting edge on one side which is pretty much straight.

spar billhook

What is a 'Spar' Billhook?

The ‘Spar’ billhook otherwise known as a ‘Spar Hook’ or ‘Sparhook’ is a smaller version of billhook, it is effectively a mini billhook. Spar Hooks usually have a blade of about 5” – 6” in length. They have a bevelled edge on one side of the blade with a hooked end, usually quite a pronounced hooked. The end of the spar hook sometimes is made with a blunt end and sometimes with a point.

sussex billhook

What is a 'Sussex' Billhook?

The ‘Sussex’ billhook design has a bevelled edge on one side of the blade with a pronounced hooked end. The hooked end is finished to a point.

yorkshire billhook

What is a 'Yorkshire' Billhook?

The ‘Yorkshire’ billhook has a blade very similar to the Double Edge billhook design with a bevelled edge on both sides of the blade. One edged side has a hook to the end. The other side has a shorter length of edge which protrudes from the main structure. The Yorkshire billhook has a longer handle which allows the user to wield the two with two hands.

Billhook Parts

A typical billhook consists of the following parts:

billhook parts

  • A - Cutting Edge
  • B - Blade
  • C - Hook
  • D - Handle
  • E - Ferrule

What Material Does A Billhook Cut?

The wood the billhook is usually used to chop is green wood.

Typical billhook uses include:

  • Coppicing / Forestry Management
  • Gardening
  • Hedge Laying
  • Hurdle Making
  • Thatching

What to look for when buying a billhook?

  • Check the blade is the right size for the job in hand.
  • Check the blade profile is the correct profile for the intended use.
  • Check the handle is comfortable to hold.
  • Check the tool has a good balance (especially for regular users) – you don’t really want a tool where the blade is really heavy and the handle is small and light as you want to be working with the tool not against the tool. Similarly, ideally, you don’t want a billhook with a big long bulky handle and a small blade as this will be a little cumbersome.

Extra things to look out for when buying a secondhand billhook

  • Make sure the handle is not infested with woodworm – if there are worm holes in the handle, these should be treated to prevent infestation of other tools and neighbouring wood. If there are lots of worm holes, the strength and structure of the handle could be compromised which can be dangerous when wielding this tool.
  • Make sure the blade is fitted to the handle tightly with no movement – if it moves/wobbles you will loose some control of the tool, it will also mean there is higher risk the blade may separate from the handle while in use.
  • Ideally make sure there are no large splits in the handle – if the handle has a large split(s) there is increased chance the blade will start to moves/wobble. There is also risk the handle could break while in use. Of course a new handle can be refitted.
  • Check the cutting face for pitting and faults – if the cutting edge area is full of holes and divots, it will make sharpening the tool to a good edge much more difficult and if the pitting is really bad the tool will need grinding. The reason being, when these pitting holes correspond with the edge of the blade being sharpened it will result in the cutting edge having nibbles and not having a complete uninterrupted sharp edge. If the cutting edge has nibbles then the billhook will not cut effectively.

There have been many, many, many makers of billhooks in the past, suprisingly there are only a few present makers. Below are a list of a few well known billhook makers:

Old Billhook Makers:

  • Brades
  • Elwell
  • Gilpin
  • Nash
  • Parkes
  • Swift (William)
  • Whitehouse

New Billhook Makers:

  • Bulldog
  • Morris (of Dunsford)

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