One Great Step Forward: Binders

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| August 2009

By the time this appears in print, combines will have started to roll in some parts of the country and soon will be in action in the rest.

When I was a kid in western Pennsylvania during the 1940s, back in the dark ages when grain was still cut with a binder, shocked by hand and then threshed, I don’t think wheat cutting began before the 4th of July. We made hay and cultivated corn in June, with the final cultivation (usually called “laying by” the corn crop) done around the 4th, by which time the corn stalks should have been “knee high by the 4th of July,” high enough that weeds would no longer offer much competition.

It would then be time to drag the old McCormick-Deering grain binder out of the barn, blow off the dust and get it ready for the field. This entailed sharpening the knife sections with a file and a hand sharpening stone, while replacing any broken knife sections. This was accomplished by pulling the 6-foot-long knife out of the cutter bar and clamping it into a vise so that the jaws of the vise supported the knife bar under the broken section. The back edge of the offending section was rapped smartly with a hammer, shearing off the two soft iron rivets holding it to the bar. A new section was then riveted in its place.

The binder was checked over for loose or broken parts, which were tightened, repaired or replaced as necessary. All the owner’s manuals and farm machinery “how-to” books recommended doing this the previous year before putting the binder away for the winter, but I doubt most farmers followed those prudent instructions.

There were dozens of oil cups and oil holes on a binder in the days before zerk and alemite pressure grease fittings were adopted during the 1930s, and each had to be cleaned out with a nail and filled with a liberal amount of oil.

Finally, the three canvases (sometimes called drapers) were installed. Those items had been removed after the previous season and stored in a dry place where, hopefully, the mice couldn’t get at them.

Each canvas was stretched around two wooden rollers. As the rollers turned, the canvases moved around them and carried the cut grain to the tying deck, where the bundle or sheaf was formed and automatically tied with twine.

A binder canvas is a rectangular piece of heavy canvas (what else?), maybe 3 or 4 feet wide and 10 to 20 feet long, depending upon the size of the binder. Narrow hardwood strips are riveted at regular intervals to one side of the canvas across the narrow width. Hemmed on all four sides, the canvas is equipped with four canvas straps at each end, one set plain and the other equipped with metal buckles.