I am interested in just about any edged tool or weapon, the puukko and leuku are my favorites but I am also interested in axes and other vintage tools, one of which is the billhook. Visually, the billhook in some of its forms reminds me of a leuku, but its primary use is in agriculture and horticulture, although it looks like it would serve well as a weapon if need be. It is somewhere between an axe and a knife. I have seen billhooks in the “flea markets” here from time to time, also the closely related brush axe which is a billhook mounted on an axe handle with a steel strap. They aren’t as common as an axe or hatchet, but you can still find them.
A Wards brush axe.
A Collins brush axe. Collins was a major manufacturer of axes, hatchets, hammers and other tools in the USA.
Bob Burgess of Heytesbury Wilts in the UK is the proprietor of the premier website on billhooks so I wrote to him and asked him if he would consider writing something for Nordiska Knivar. He graciously replied and sent me this excellent article.
Please visit his site http://www.billhooks.co.uk/
He is always looking for new information and would like a contact for information on Finnish billhooks. Thank you Bob!
The Billhooks of Scandinavia and Northern Europe
by Bob Burgess
The history of the billhook is well documented for Southern Europe and
Britain, also for Central Europe and as far north as Germany, but for
Northern Europe; i.e. the Baltic States and Scandinavia it is less well
known. In part this is due to language difficulties (it is only recently that
major studies and theses have been written in English), and in part
because anthropologists and ethnologists have frequently ignored tools,
concentrating mainly on culture, religion and works of art. This article
attempts to trace some of its history and development further north,
through Denmark into Scandinavia, and eastwards through the Baltic
States to Russia.
The billhook is a tool that does not fit into any one category – similar to a
sickle and often used like an axe, it is not just an agricultural tool, but one
found in towns and cities or in carpenters and coopers shops. It has many
forms and it comes in a range of sizes. Small versions were the tool of the
gardener, used for pruning all types of shrubs, fruit bushes and trees and
even for harvesting flowers. In warmer climates it was the pruning tool
for grape vines, and in the Roman period was found as far north as
Cologne (Köln) in Germany.
The Iron Age billhook appears to have descended from the Bronze Age
sickle or pruning hook, and in southern Europe was common before the
Roman occupation. There is little archaeological evidence of its use in
Northern Europe, but as trade between tribes and regions was common
(Baltic Amber was found all over Central and Southern Europe and
Britain) it is not unreasonable to assume it was also found further north.
Shaped like a sickle, but with a thicker and heavier blade, sometimes with
a secondary, axe like, blade on the back, the billhook is a tool most
suitable for cutting green wood up to the size of a large sapling, say 50mm
diameter. The billhook was common throughout the Roman Empire, and
many different blade shapes from this period survive. Many would be
recognisable as such today, and as found on modern tools, the handles
were fitted by using a tang passing through the handle or a socket that
Above: Roman era rebmesser or vine pruning hooks from Germany, from Brauneberg (Leiwen) and (bottom) from Piesport (Trier).
Moving further north into Denmark, the billhook is known, but is no
longer common and it is difficult to find images or examples despite
various names: udtyndingskniv (thinning knife); grenkniv (branch knife); rydningkniv (clearing knife); tjørneskniv (thorn knife). Research has not found any reliable images, other than a square blade version used for trimming root vegetables such as beet.
Around the southern and eastern Baltic Sea, it was more common, being
found in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. Again information
is hard to come by, but the Estonian National Museum has a good
collection. Known there as the ‘kiin’or ‘võsanuga’ a wide variety of blade
shapes can be found.
One type of ‘kiin’ is of particular interest, as a similar shaped one has been
found in the Viking excavations of York in the UK. With a separate beak, it
would appear to be made specifically to chop firewood, with the beak
hitting the ground to prevent the cutting edge being damaged.
Above: (top) Estonian ‘kiin’ and (bottom) from 8th or 9th century Viking York (UK)
Moving further north, into Finland the billhook is still common, and
several makers are still producing them commercially. Known as: vesuri;
kassara; hakokirves; havukirves; havurauta – there are three basic forms.
The ‘vesuri’ (below) generally has an open socket handle and a pronounced beak to the blade.
The ‘kassara’ (below) is similar in shape but has a tang fitted handle, and
may also be double edged, i.e. have a back blade.
The ‘havukirves’ (below) is similar to the English block bill, and has a
straight blade with a back hook for pulling the branches towards the user.
As well as being used in coppice work, for chopping firewood and other
tasks common in other parts of Europe, one of the principal uses of
Scandinavian billhooks is cutting brushwood and leafy material for use as
cattle fodder during the long winter months.
Above: pages from the Billnäs (Takeista) catalogue, c 1928.
Below a page from another catalogue of the same era.
Many examples of Finnish billhooks can still be found, and various
museums have a good range of examples. The traditional vesuri is still
being made by a small family firm, Härmän Tyaonta O – until recently they
used to also make kasseri and havurauta (and may still do so if sufficient
quantity was ordered).
The other major Finnish edge tool maker, Fiskars, have stopped making
traditional wooden handled tools, now only selling a small range of plastic
handled tools that are being aggressively sold throughout Europe (sold as
a brush hook under the Gerber name in the USA, and as Wilkinson Sword
in the UK).
A Fiskars brush hook.
The Finnish vesuri was also found on the old flag of the Karelia region,
next to the Russian border:
In Sweden and Norway the billhooks is still known and is relatively
common, although I have not been able to track down any commercial
maker in either country, it is probable that it was not just the product of
the village blacksmiths, but made on a commercial scale in both countries.
Known in Sweden as a lövkniv; vesoin; lövhacka; riskniv; rissnapp: lövhark; krumkniv or faskinkniv – the first term is most common and translates to leaf or foliage knife, i.e. used to cut winter fodder for cattle, as in Finland.
Similarly in Norway it is called a lauvkniv (also løvkniv) – literally a
‘deciduous (leaf) knife’ and also lauvsigd (leaf sickle), hakkekniv (chopping knife) or snidel. The shapes of blade are very similar to those from Finland, without a great variation of profiles as in southern Europe where a great number of regional styles exist.
One of the problems in researching tools of any kind is the wide variety of
regional and dialect names used – this worsens when one is working in
another language. The term for billhook is also often synonymous with the
word for sickle or axe. Tools have been generally little studied, with many
museums concentrating on other artifacts, e.g. weapons, which have
always held greater interest than the tools used to produce them. It is
hoped this short article will initiate further research, and other amateur
tool enthusiasts and collectors can contribute to the scholarly research
carried out by ethnologist, anthropologists and archaeologists.
© Bob Burgess (UK) February 2014
Bob Burgess site:
Härmän Tyaonta O:
Finnish museum (portal to a number of collections):