One Great Step Forward: Binders

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| August 2009

  • The next step in the evolution of grain cutting was the self-rake reaper, such as this McCormick gear-drive Daisy reaper.
    The next step in the evolution of grain cutting was the self-rake reaper, such as this McCormick gear-drive Daisy reaper, which had a series of arms that swept the cut grain from the quarter-circle platform into gavels, which still had to be hand tied.
    Sam Moore
  • A McCormick-Deering grain binder, similar to the one we used on our farm when I was a kid, at work in oats.
    A McCormick-Deering grain binder, similar to the one we used on our farm when I was a kid, at work in oats. The grain binder not only cut the grain, but also automatically tied the gavels into sheaves. In this 2006 photo Tommy Flowers, Blackville, S.C., works with his Brabant Belgian horses (Rocky, since deceased, is shown on the off side; Bulah on the near).
    Sam Moore
  • Cutting grain with an early McCormick reaper in Holland.
    Cutting grain with an early McCormick reaper in Holland. The cut grain was laid back on the platform by the reel and then raked off by hand into gavels by the man walking alongside. This was one of the first steps in mechanical grain harvesting. (This information is possibly inaccurate, as Harold Sohner, Fredericksburg, Texas, wrote in a letter to Farm Collector, "This photo was taken by International Harvester in 1909 on a farm just west of Chicago and it is of a replica of the original 1831 McCormick reaper. ... A series of photographs were taken at the same location and at the same time showing the reaper replica in different working configuration. The photo in question, sometimes altered to remove the windmill, can be found in a number of books and publications of the era.")
    From The American Thresherman, May 1925
  • A grain binder in transport mode and on the road.
    A grain binder in transport mode and on the road.
    From a 1904 Adriance, Platt & Co. catalog
  • A man sharpening his cradle scythe while cutting wheat.
    A man sharpening his cradle scythe while cutting wheat. The fingers on the cradle caught the stalks; a skilled cradler could put enough cut stalks on top of the stubble to make a sheaf. This gavel of grain stalks was then gathered up and tied into a sheaf with a few wisps of grain before being stood up into shocks, or stooks as they were sometimes called.
    From The American Thresherman, July 1929

  • The next step in the evolution of grain cutting was the self-rake reaper, such as this McCormick gear-drive Daisy reaper.
  • A McCormick-Deering grain binder, similar to the one we used on our farm when I was a kid, at work in oats.
  • Cutting grain with an early McCormick reaper in Holland.
  • A grain binder in transport mode and on the road.
  • A man sharpening his cradle scythe while cutting wheat.

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.