The Sling-Blade — Traditional Arkansas Tool

Indiana cornfield in drought

When it’s this dry, a cigarette can set a cornfield on fire.

About ten years ago, I dreamed that I ought to follow the rain north. Being part Indian, that seemed like good advice, but since I’m also part Scottish it seemed expensive and impossible. I wound up following the rain north, and everybody here in Indiana was surprised at how much it rained for those first nine years. In 2012, it’s a bit different. This year we’re having a drought, of the kind that we used to have every August in the Ozarks except that this one started in May and nobody here is ready for it. The Spring rains skipped us. Some places did better than others in terms of rain, but locally the pickings were slim.

It’s so dry here now that I’ve decided to cut a firebreak around the house, something I don’t usually get around to doing until August. Right now it’s the middle of June, but this year’s June is like a really bad August, dry as bones and dust, windy and hot hot hot. If somebody tosses a cigarette out their car window when they drive by, I’ll probably be living in my car for awhile, assuming I can back the car out in time. The fire hazard will be there whether I cut the hay or not, but I’ll feel better if I cut the hay. Besides, I can use the hay in the garden and it’ll cut down on the watering I have to do.

slingblade and garden

A few minutes of work yields enough mulch to cover the hot side of the bean mound.

A few years ago I decided I’m old enough to do whatever the hell I want to do, and I gave up the power machinery I never liked anyway and went back to hand tools. I’ve always enjoyed manual labor. I read once that if you rake leaves for twenty minutes a day in the fall you add a year to your life. By those standards I should already live until the year 3000 and I continue to add to it. Today because of the fire hazard I was looking for a quick way to build a defensive zone and headed to the garage to check out the weedeater, thinking that might be the fastest solution. As usual when I’m heading towards internal combustion engines and all their problems, I got immediately sidetracked by an old hand tool I’d forgotten was even here, the sling-blade.

Although he used a mower
blade in the final scenes,
he got the concept right.

Alice bought this sling-blade years before I ever moved up here and I had seen it before but took it lightly, because most sling-blades aren’t made very well today. The blades are usually really cheap steel of the sort that won’t hold an edge and bends when you hit something hard. Very quickly you hold in your hands a useless piece of bent metal if you try to do any work with a modern slingblade. When I picked up Alice’s old clunker, a tool she bought at a yard sale for next to nothing and apparently didn’t use very much, I was pleasantly surprised. This is the old kind of sling-blade, the kind that actually works. The blade is real carbon steel, thick and strong, and it’s a genuine monster if you aren’t used to hard labor.

sling blade

The first thing to do is to file a new edge on the blade, whether you bought it today or thirty years ago today.

As I was sitting on the porch filing a new edge on the tool I noticed that under the dirt and rust was a layer of paint. That meant that this was essentially a new tool and a real find, not even used often enough to wear off the factory paint. Carbon steel rusts, but then it stops rusting because the air can’t get through the rust layer. There might be pits in rusted metal but of no real consequence in practical terms, and the original cutting edge won’t be there, but if it’s good carbon steel and there’s a reasonable amount of it you can just file a new edge and be back at work, just as though the past thirty years of disuse never actually happened. That’s the condition of this tool, brand new except for the inconsequential rust.

Best Sling-Blade scene ever —
George Kennedy cutting an
embankment at sunset. He had
the rhythm perfect.

Filing does take awhile, and gave me a chance to think of all the interesting things I know about sling-blades. These used to be one of the favorite forms of punishment in the prison chain-gangs of the Deep South. Not that anybody would have used one on you (they used shotguns and whips back in those days) but you had to use a sling-blade for at least 12 hours a day in all sorts of summer weather to pay your debt to Southern society, back when going to prison meant you were probably going to die. In the 50’s, chain gangs in Arkansas worked the highway right-of-ways with sling-blades. Today’s criminals use weed-eaters, an infernal machine that contributes very little to physical fitness, producing an inferior type of common criminal. Sling-blades will make a real man out of you, or kill you. It’s hot work, and you have to put muscle into it on the out-stroke and the back-stroke or you don’t get a really even cut. In either direction, a sharp edge makes it all possible, otherwise you’re tearing plants in half instead of cutting, and tearing is lots harder to do.

sling blade lawn

Sling blades leave an uneven cut, but clear the area of grass and brush quickly.

Even though it’s a coarse tool that requires a lot of muscle and stamina, the sling-blade works. It’s one of the better choices of tools for grass that’s partly dry and tough and mixed with hardwood sprouts and vines. With a little practice you get into a nice rhythm, a strong cut on the power stroke and a cleanup cut on the back stroke. If you’re a gardener, you’ll like the sling-blade because it’s one of the tools that makes real hay, not clippings. Weed-eaters and mowers make clippings you can’t hardly scrape up afterwards. Even if you run a mower with a bagger, you’ll get dense mats of clippings that aren’t really good mulch. Hay allows air through, conserves moisture, and defends your garden against drought. In the fall you can till it under and make even better soil.

Good luck finding a good sling-blade today. Your best chance is a yard sale, or an old movie.

The movie doesn’t name the
prison, but to anyone from
Arkansas the location is
obvious. In essence, a true

Ten-year warranty
makes this sling-
blade a good deal.

I was still in school when the story broke about Cummins Prison Farm and how the FBI discovered scores of unmarked graves outside the grounds, filled with people “shot while trying to escape.” Cummins was a tough place in those days and I’m sure it still is. A neighbor of mine, Toad Creager, spent a couple of years at Cummins in the old days and came home a changed man. Said he had to work the chain gangs twelve hours or more, every day, and if he ever slowed down a bit the trustee would touch him up a little with a whip to give him a boost of incentive. Toad said that for the rest of his life, he would not so much as park in the wrong spot, and he died an honest man. Brubaker, starring Robert Redford, attempts to tell the story of Cummins Prison Farm and the effort to reform it. Might have worked. Last I heard, they still run chain gangs. Maybe they’re nicer chain gangs.

Jimmy Two Hats


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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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