Icelandic Turf Building – Tools and their uses.

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Duncan Ainslie, HES Estates Technical Officer, Conservation

In the conservation of buildings it is generally accepted that maintaining traditional skills is an essential part of delivering appropriate repairs. When repairing a stone wall for example, a newly indented stone fresh from a modern saw will stand out like a sore thumb, a new stone that has had its surface tooled by hand will blend in with the whole for a much sweeter appearance. The skills in their own right are also an essential part of intangible heritage worth preserving. What is sometimes forgotten though is that for traditional trades to be carried out in a truly traditional way they rely on the correct tools being available. This is felt in the UK – at present a number of tool making crafts feature on the Heritage Crafts Association ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’. This is not an issue unique to the UK. It became apparent that sourcing replacement parts for the Icelandic turf building tools, the turf scythe in particular, was a challenge.

Working with turf buildings in Iceland we used several tools – some of which were instantly familiar, and some which were less so. This report records the tools used, both in their appearance and construction and briefly in their use.

Figure 1: Digging spade (left) and
undercutting spade (right) as used on the course.

Digging Spade

Description

The spade used at Tyrfingsstadir was a modern Fiskars ‘Classic’ digging spade, with a dished blade and pointed cutting edge – clearly not quite the traditional option. In use this curved blade did raise some questions as it would leave a slightly scalloped edge along the turf blocks being dug. In Building with Turf, by Sigríður Sigurðóttir (and kindly provided by the museum), they do feature an image of a more traditional digging spade on p.8. A predominantly timber construction with a small seemingly flat blade and a slightly curved cutting edge. The spade pictured also has an interesting feature in the form a wooden ‘ledge’ on one side to allow space for a foot to drive the blade into the soil. It also be interesting to know how well the flat blade would have coped under the stress of levering out soil without the added strength that the dished blades provided to the modern spades we used. People would have often had forges on their properties so regular repair and blade replacement might have been possible. The Glambær farm certainly featured a smithy, ‘all farms formerly had their own smithy, which was necessary for sharpening scythes, to make horse shoes and other farm equipment and utensils’ according to the guide.

Figure 2: Using the digging spade to dress the face of the laid Klambra

Use

As with many of the tools used in the course the digging spade was a versatile tool used in various stages. It was used with the undercutting spade (see below) when cutting out the various varieties of turf block. The spade was also used to trim the blocks when laying them to ensure a good fit, and to dress the blocks once they had been laid to give the wall face a flat and true surface. 

Undercutting Spade

Description

The undercutting spade was a less familiar type of spade with a wide, flat, triangular shaped blade fixed on a long metal shaft before transitioning into a wooden handle about a third of a way up. The one we used featured a non-traditional plastic handle. There is one pictured alongside the digging spade in Building with Turf but the handle, while possibly a metal version rather than plastic, is of a similar D-shape pattern.

Figure 3: The undercutting spade being
used alongside a digging spade to cut out Klambra

Use

The caption in Building with Turf explains that ‘the undercutting spade was used to cut strips of grass sod and kringlutorf (“circular shaped sod turf”). It was also used to dig peat and to smooth off the hayfield by slicing off the tops of pufur (“tussocks”) caused by frost heaving.

When at Tyrfingsstadir the principal use of the undercutting spade for us was to cut the underside of the turf blocks, having already cut the four vertical sides with the digging spade. Once all faces of the block were cut it could then be removed from the ground. Due to the thin metal shaft of this tool it was used only in the one cutting direction, driven by resting the handle against the thigh and using core strength rather than using your arms, as any attempt to lever the turf blocks with the undercutting spade could have caused the shaft to bend.

Figure 4: The ljar or ‘turf scythe’. General view
(bottom) and being used to cut square torfa into two
strengur

Ljár or Torfljár “turf scythe”

Description

The turf scythe that we used was referred to as a ‘ljar’ or ‘torfljár’. Building with Turf notes two variants – the einskeri (“one cutter”) and tviskeri (“two cutter”). The einskeri is a longer version, sometimes used by two people, which can cut out certain strips of turf in one cut. The shorter tviskeri was what we used.

The handle, called a skammort “short stock”, is a curved piece of wood allowing a hand hold to either side of the blade. The best handles are said to use a tree root where the natural curve of the root would match that of the handle for a strong single piece construction. The scythe are sharpened along the length of the blade on one side only, the left. The blade joins the handle with a ‘cranked’ arrangement, with two near right angles, and the tang passes through the handle and has an eyelet allowing it to be fix it in place with a wedge or similar. There were two varieties of blade used, one was curved along the length of the blade with a straight edge, while the other had a flat blade but with a crescent shaped curve to the cutting edge.

One had a single piece blade, while the others had a sharp blade riveted onto a metal back. One of the scythes featured a blade made by Tyzack and Son (a Sheffield tool maker), while Helgi mentioned that the blade of another was of Scottish origin. When the blades needed replacing on the riveted blades the rivets could be ground off (working from the side of the now expired blade) and a new blade attached – though as yet Helgi hasn’t found a source for new blades.

I asked if the backs of the riveted blades were a softer steel but Helgi explained that was not the case due to the strain that gets put on these cranked angles where the blade meets the handle. I also asked about the single edged nature – were there any for cutting the opposite direction, or even double edged varieties? It sounds like there were occasionally left and right handed ljár, but none with a double edge – though Helgi did like the idea of it and thought there would be situations where the versatility of a double edge would come in useful.

Use

The main use of the ljár was for cutting the strengur and torfa (“strip” and “turf”). The strengur was cut with one vertical cut and was then met with a low angled cut, sharply tapering out towards each end while the torfa was two low angled cuts that met in the middle.

The ljár was also used, like the digging spade, for trimming the strips, turfs and blocks when they were being laid to ensure everything fit together tightly and neatly.

Figure 5: Using the ljár to cut out strengur (top) and to clean up laid
klambra (bottom)

Hoe

Description

This final tool was not used as extensively in the process and was more just a general aid in moving and levelling the soil but is perhaps worth noting for completeness. Whilst not a typical hoe it seems like it would fit into that family of tools. It was not named in either the course or the literature. The blade of the hoe was curved both along the cutting edge and in the shape of the blade itself.

Use

There’s little to be said for the use of this tool, its purpose being to help break up and distribute the soil that was being packed into the core of the turf walls.

Figure 6: The type of hoe used on the course

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