Leo Sprauer's
Hop Hoe

Dateline: 28 April 2012

Note: This article is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series about useful tools made by agrarian craftsmen.

(click on any picture to see a  larger image)

Leo Sprauer’s grandfather was a blacksmith and he made the first hop hoe in the Willamette Valley of Oregon back in 1920. The tool soon became popular with hop growers and was adopted to other uses by farmers and gardeners in the region. After Leo’s grandfather passed on, another local blacksmith made the hoe up to around 1980. Then, back around 1987, Leo started making hop hoes. So I think it’s safe to say that making hop hoes is a Sprauer family tradition that is still being carried on.... 92 years later.

I like stories like that, and I like Leo’s handcrafted hop hoe. It feels good in my hands and I’ve yet to find a weed that the sharpened blade won’t slice through with ease. Though I’ve only had the tool for a couple weeks, I’ve used it to slice off suckers trying to grow outside my raspberry rows. I’ve also used it to slice through stout thistle and burdock in the field next to my house that I’ll be buying next month (my future pasture). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hoe so well suited to chopping and slicing as Leo’s hop hoe is.

When I realized what a remarkable tool the hop hoe is I decided to call Leo Sprauer and ask him some questions about his hoe. What follows is a synopsis of our conversation. And if you would like to have a hop hoe of your own, I’ll tell you how to get one at the end of this article.



The Original Purpose 
Of A Hop Hoe
.
I asked Leo Sprauer what the original hop hoe was designed to do for hop growers. He explained that when hops were harvested in the fall, it was customary to cut the vines off around three feet above the ground. Leaving that length of growth on the plant helped the roots to better store nutrients for surviving the winter. In the following spring, the 3ft. lengths of vine were dry and hard. A hop hoe, with its sharpened blade, easily sliced away the old vines.

I don’t know if hops are still harvested that way, but I have a single hop plant that I’ve grown up a pole in the corner of my garden for several years, and I typically cut the vines down to ground level in the fall. This year, however, I’ll cut them high, and in the following spring I’ll use my hop hoe for what it was originally designed to do. But my hoe will see a lot more action than that because, as I’ve noted above, it is perfectly suited to any chopping/slicing work that needs to be done.



Leo’s Hoes Are 
Farmer-Made
.
Leo Sprauer is a farmer. He works the land his parents bought in the early 1960’s. Back then, they grew hops on the farm. These days, Leo grows boxwood nursery stock on the land. Making the hop hoes is a sideline to farming. 





A Truly 
Handcrafted Hoe
.
Leo Sprauer’s grandfather made the original hop hoes from old automobile leaf springs, but Leo uses T1 steel, which is a tempered steel, three times harder than common mild steel, and well suited for a hoe blade.

The finished blade is 12” long and has a gentle radius bend to it (as you can see in the photos). It is 4” wide on one end and 1.25” wide on the other. Both ends are sharpened.

The handle on Leo’s hoes is made of kiln-dried red oak, which Leo carefully selects. He cuts and shapes the handles himself and they are true to the traditional style. Instead of being round in cross section, as is the case with most every other hoe you’ve ever seen, the hop hoe handle is more of an oval shape, with two flat sides. 


With the flat sides, you don’t have to grip the handle as hard as you do with a typical hoe, and the hoe is easier to work with as a result.

The “farrow” or handle socket (5" long) is tapered, as it should be on any good hoe (to best hold the handle), and it is welded to the hoe head. The handle fits securely in the socket and is held in place with one short nail through a hole in the side of the socket. The nail goes only half way into the handle.

Leo says that the handle wood is well dried and should not shrink, but if the handle ever loosens in the socket, all you have to do is grind the nail head off, and set the nail down into the handle just a bit. Then refit the handle deeper into the socket and secure it with another nail.

If I were to reset the handle, I’d be inclined to use a screw instead of a nail. But the point is that repair or handle replacement is no big deal.

The total length of the handled hoe is just under 60", and I see that as a big plus. Long-handled hoes are a whole lot easier to work with than short handled hoes.


Total weight of the tool is just a skosh over three pounds.

Leo told me there are 32 steps in making the blade, farrow, and handle. And he typically makes 100 hoes at a time.



It’s Not a Grub Hoe
.
Leo Sprauer says the hop hoe I have is a “medium duty” hoe, which is to say that it will work well, and last a good long time, under normal working conditions. But if the tool is used as a grub hoe for digging, or for hammer-chopping in rock-hard soil, it will eventually break.

However, if someone expects to be using the hoe for extra hard chopping conditions, Leo makes a reinforced version of the hoe that will hold up longer under extreme use. 



Keep It Sharp
.
All garden hoes work best when they are sharp and I think this is especially true with a hop hoe. I put some small nicks in the blade of my hoe (that field I’m buying is really rocky) and had no problem sharpening the blade with a 12” bastard file. Leo uses an angle grinder to keep his blades sharp.







How To Get One Of 
Leo Sprauer’s Hop Hoes
.
Leo sells around 200 hop hoes a year. Some years he has sold as many as 400 hoes. Now that I’ve introduced his hoe to the world in this little article, I expect that 2012 might be an 800 hoe year. :-)

If you live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, you can find a Leo Sprauer hop hoe at your local TrueValue hardware store. Some nurseries and tractor supply stores in the area also have Sprauer hoes for sale.

Those of you in other parts of the United States can get a hop hoe directly from Leo. There is no web site with easy online ordering buttons (yet), so you’ll have to contact Leo by e-mail (leaping.leo@hotmail.com) and make arrangements to get a hoe.

A Leo Sprauer handcrafted hop hoe will cost you $48. Figure another $30 for UPS shipping and you’ll end up paying a total of $78. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable price for a handcrafted tool that, if properly used and cared for, will serve you faithfully for a great many years.



A Medieval Weapon?

I showed Leo's hop hoe to my son, Robert, and told him all about it. His response was, "It looks like a medieval weapon." I hadn't thought of that, but it does look like a medieval weapon. So if you ever need a medieval weapon, a hop hoe should do the job.

The Short Version

(photo by Leo Sprauer)
The picture above shows a short-handled (approximately 20") version of the hop hoe. The head is scaled down in size too.


A Little Disclaimer
.
I’m impressed with Leo Sprauer’s hop hoe and am pleased to be able to tell you about it here. I want to make it clear that I am in no way benefiting financially from writing about this tool, and I am not receiving any money from Mr. Sprauer for hoes that he sells as a result of this review.

Also, though I have spoken with Leo Sprauer, and I have a good feeling about him, I do not know Leo and I can not vouch for his integrity as a businessman. Therefore, if you contact Leo Sprauer and purchase a hop hoe from him, I can not, and do not, guarantee your satisfaction.

That said, if you do purchase a hoe from Mr. Sprauer, I would appreciate it if you came back to this web page and provided some feedback in the comments section below. Your feedback will serve a valuable purpose, helping others to decide if they want to purchase one of Leo's hop hoes.

.
I’m Looking 
For More Useful Tools
.
I think Leo Sprauer makes a downright useful product. It is my hope that this article will help him sell more of his hoes, and I would like to help other agrarian craftsmen (and women) sell their products.


This blog has been in existence for six years and gets over 500 visitors a day, every day, 365 days a year. I have a readership that would like to know about and support such craftspeople. 

Do you know someone with a home business who is crafting a unique and/or useful tool that can help people to live a more self-reliant lifestyle? A “tool” can be for the garden, the barn, the kitchen, or the workshop (I’m not including books as tools for this kind of individual review). If so, send me an e-mail about it: hckimball@bci.net

I may request a sample of any product I write about here, but there will be no expectation (or acceptance) of financial remuneration in any way.

6 comments:

Charisse said...

I live in the Willamette Valley and I think all large crops of hops are now harvested mechanically, but my Grandma always told me stories about when she was a kid. Every year during hop harvest which was about an hour north of where we live, lots of families would go live up there for the whole harvest. While her dad stayed behind to run his business (shoe repair), her mom and all the kids would go up for a month or more and live in a tent to earn money harvesting hops. The kids all harvested and the mom and one older sister stayed in the camp to cook, do laundry etc. They worked hard but they had a lot of fun because there were so many families in the camp and lots of kids to play with in the evenings. They had friends they only saw during harvest each year and she had a lot of good memories of the hop harvests. This would have been in the late 20s and 30s.

Therese said...

I have used Leo's hop hoes on my farm for over 11 years and have not broken one yet. They truly are a quality, long-lasting hand crafted tool. The short handled one is tops for dividing iris and cleaning garden beds, if you like to crawl along, as I do.
The hoes help you get the job done!

Herrick Kimball said...

Charisse,

Your recollection is a little snapshot into the agrarian past, before agriculture became industrialized. What your grandmother described was pretty much the norm for thousands of years of history—communities of people, including the young and the old, came together to bring in the harvest.

My mother told me much the same story from when she grew up in northern Maine. The crop there was potatoes. Schools shut down so the kids could help bring in the harvest. Not only the farm kids worked to pick potatoes, but the town kids too. The whole economy of that area depended on the potato harvest and the whole community pitched in.

It was very hard work, picking the potatoes day after day for long hours, often in cold and wet, but they all worked together and those who remember such days remember them fondly.

The culture of agriculture prior to industrialization knit communities together like nothing else can.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

We have had a Hop hoe for a number of years and can say that it is a very usefull tool. The hoe gets used alot for chopping thistles and other weeds and has held up well. Boone, Willamette valley, Oregon.

organic-mk said...

Hello Herrick,

Some time ago I sent you h e-mail through some links with interesting tools from Russia. Did you get them?

Anonymous said...

Herrick and Charisse,
Interesting comments on farm work and community pre- and post-industrialization. It reminds me that there are still certain groups, say, immigrant and "illegal" Hispanic farm workers, who continue to live an agrarian (but nomadic) lifestyle, following the harvest. In fact, our entire industrialized food system depends upon them doing so. Unfortunately, I would doubt that very many of them recall it as fondly as our parents and grandparents.