Tips from the Expert

Matt Best of Best Alpaca Shearing answers frequently asked questions about shearing theory and practicality, shearing equipment use and maintenance.

Q - How do I minimize shearing cuts?
While a nick or two is normal and acceptable over the course of a day’s work, responsible shearers should strive to minimize skin cuts. There are several ways to accomplish this. I’ll speak in general at first then get specific on species.

Shear to a pattern. When we memorize a specific shearing pattern, danger areas and the sequence in which we cover them are recognized sooner and more likely gone over without incident. Simply being aware one is about to shear a potential “cut” area is often enough to succeed. When not shearing to a pattern or more likely “going back” to clean up a missed lock of fiber increases chances of cutting. Not only are we covering an area more than once, often when we go back, clipper approach to a given area is different than when it was shorn in the pattern. This is particularly true when shearing sheep or goats. The shearing pattern for sheep provides tight skin on a certain place on the sheep’s body. Shearing outside of the pattern covers body area that has not been “stretched tight”.

Learn the obvious danger areas. Neck folds on certain sheep breeds, wattles on Angora goats, stifle regions, navels on cria, etc. As a shearer gains more experience, he should learn to equate differing breeds with their own problem areas. An alpaca for example has a fairly tight skin. When stretched and restrained for shearing, however, there are a few wrinkles “created” by the position of the stretched legs. Being cognizant of these potential cut areas gives one an edge to shear without incident.

Gear experting. Using sharp combs and cutters, combs designed for the purpose, and correct alignment of blades on the shearing hand piece will eliminate probably 75% of potential problems. Too much “lead” on the comb for example can cause excessive “pushing” of comb through the fiber which can result in skin rolling up in front of the shears. Dull blades tend to chew rather than cut fiber and tend to pull skin upwards.

Confident use of the left hand. Particularly in sheep shearing if we’ve got the pattern down pat, 90% of the time we use our legs to hold the sheep in position. This frees left hand to smooth wrinkles ahead of the shears. Alpaca shearers have the advantage of a restrained animal; and can utilize the left hand to clear fiber and stretch skin.

Slow down, shear with confidence. If we’re constantly worried about skin cuts, our concentration will be off and not concentrating on area to be shorn. Wild flashing blows while spectacular to watch are never better than slow smooth movements of the right hand.

Potential problem areas on alpaca:
Skin wrinkles above the stifle region particularly on older or thinner animals
Cria navels
In between front legs of stretched alpaca
Wrinkles at base of neck particularly on very dense animals
Knee and brisket pads ( a calloused area caused by cushing)
And of course ears, tails and anything else that sticks up

Q - How often should I oil my shears?
The goal is to provide adequate lubricant to keep things moving along (literally) but not so much as to be wasteful or incur fiber contamination. One should always obey manufacturer’s recommendations in literature provided with purchase of shearing equipment. Generally for most brands of hand-held electric hand pieces, this involves lubricating bearing surfaces in the shearing head of the machine. Oil ports vary in number and location but as a rule require several drops of lube every half hour or so of operation. If we’re shearing 4 alpaca an hour, a couple of squirts after every two.

Oiling the blades themselves should be done at least at every cutter change. While oiling the combs and cutters does provide a cooling effect, blade heating is not a symptom of inadequate lubrication. The comb and cutter should be thought of as multiple sets of scissors and oil is not necessary for proper cutting. Too much tension, running while holding them out in the air, and contamination (dirt) in the fleece are the real culprits of heat build up. Excessive oiling of the blades result in fiber stains and a real mess on the shearing floor. Learning shearers will experience gear heating more than professionals and be tempted to oil more often. Alternating hand pieces, frequent blade changes, keeping the shears busy cutting off fiber and keeping air inlet screens clean are better options than continued oiling. Beginner shearers should strive to oil less frequently as experience is gained and speed of shearing increases. If hand piece heating is a problem, better to cool the comb by resting it on a damp towel or sponge.

Most shearing equipment manufacturers also provide oils suited to their machines. While a quart of “Wal-mart 10W30” can be used, a lighter clipping oil is better. Spray lubricants should be avoided.

-Oster electrics have 3 oil holes on left side of shearing head
-Premier electrics have one oil hole in back of tension nut
-Heiniger/Andis electrics have one oil hole in front of tension nut
-Most shafting plant handpieces require oiling the crankshaft ball, tension pin and cup and center posts

Q - How can I reduce second cuts?
Good shearing can be broken down into about four principles.

1- Know the equipment
2- Know the pattern
3- Know the contour of the animal
4- Repetition

Shearing with a minimum of second cuts involves all four, but particularly number 2 & 3. In order to shear clean we must keep the comb teeth on the skin. Supple wrist action is a must. A shearer needs to twist the shears sideways to keep the bottom (right most tooth) on the skin as we follow the curves of the animal while also bending the wrist to begin and end each blow on the skin. Second cuts occur then we allow the comb to come up off the skin, then go back and clean the area up OR overlap on the next blow. Filling the comb (using all the width) prevents this overlap. This is particularly important when using today’s wider concave flared combs.

Having the shape or contour of whatever animal we’re shearing memorized as well as knowing the order in which we’re going to approach those contours (pattern) gives us a great advantage in keeping those comb teeth on the skin. For example: When I shear an alpaca, I know, without a doubt that on the fifth stroke from the start in position one, I’m going to cross over the alpacas spine and shear on the far side of the backbone. When I put this blow in, I have to twist my wrist to keep the bottom tooth down. Because I’m able to anticipate this, I can prevent a second cut in the middle of a clients show fleece.

Keeping a sharp comb and cutter on the handpieces also prevents furring (small fiber pieces similar to second cuts.

Q - What is the best way to sharpen combs & cutters?
With a beveled wheel which produces a hollow grind.

Professional shearing grinder discs are machined with a 1/2 degree bevel across the face of the wheel. This is opposed to grinding discs for clipping blades, which are flat.

If you’re buying used equipment and not sure what you’ve got, a simple check can be performed by laying a straight edge such as a carpenters square on the disc. If it’s a beveled wheel for shearing blades, you should be able to rock the straight edge back and forth across the surface.

Why a hollow grind?

It makes sense if one thinks about the relationship of cutter tips to comb teeth as they reciprocate back and forth. To understand the cutting action of the comb and cutter, we must think of them as multiple pairs of scissors. When we look at the blades of any scissor-based cutting tool from hand shears to tin snips, we can see the individual blades cross at the tips. It’s hard to think of something as hard as a shearing cutter being bendable, but they do flex. As the cutter is moved across the comb by the machine yokes, every time a cutter point is in the gap between comb teeth it is pushed down into the gap by the tension we’ve applied. As the cutter point crosses a comb tooth, it does so in the same blade-crossing way as our scissor tips. In order for this to happen correctly, the combs and cutters must be sharpened by a grinding disc that actually removes slightly more material in the center of the comb and cutter during sharpening; hence a “hollow grind”. Combs can be checked for this quickly by placing one comb on top of another comb with the sharpened surfaces together. Holding this “comb sandwich” up to the light reveals daylight in between the middle teeth while the end teeth touch. This trick to comb experting can be determined by being exact in comb to grinder approach and removal during sharpening.

A flat grinding disc sharpens the comb and cutter without compensating for the cutter arc. Outside teeth receive less tension than middle teeth and the cross-blade scissor action does not occur, resulting in poorer performance. Clipping machines use different mechanicals which result in top clipping blade moving side to side in a straight line instead of an arc, thus these blades can be sharpened adequately on a flat disc.

Q - How do you set up the Top Gun ropes?
I’ve had several folks ask for an easy way to position their ropes before attaching anchor points. This is my method:

Once I’ve selected the area in which to shear (level, well-lighted, easy traffic flow) I position my accordion mat in the general area. I then start with the front rope (the one with the pulleys). Even though this rope is adjustable, it is more important to get this one positioned correctly for proper stretch. I lay the front rope out so that when it is fully extended, the leg loops are on the 4th section of the 5 section accordion mat. The spring snap then determines the front anchor point.

I then position the rear rope so that the leg loops are just lying on the edge of the 5th section of the accordion mat. the welded ring or the short length of rope can determine the rear anchor. The front and rear leg loops are then about an alpaca’s body length apart from each other making for ease in putting them on and sufficient mechanical advantage to restrain even the biggest alpaca.

Remember, the faster the rope is pulled, the easier the animal goes down.

Cutter Check

Many shearers debate which brand of cutters to purchase. While it’s kind of like asking which brand of pickup to buy, not all shearing cutters are created equal. It’s easy to blame the handpiece, the grinding, or the animals for inherently inferior gear.

There is an easy way to eliminate the possibility of bad cutters when we’re solving a non-cutting issue. All we need are the cutters in question and a tool called a Precision Parallel. This tool is available from machinist supply companies.

Precision-parallel

Precision parallel

Lay the precision parallel on the back (unsharpened) side of the cutter.

Cutter-check

Cutter Check

The parallel should lay across the main body of the cutter, in between the holes for the yoke tips and the pendulum holes.

Cutter check

Cutter check

When held up to a light, a good flat cutter shows no light in between the cutter and the parallel.

Good cutter

Good cutter

If the cutter is faulty, it will be warped enough to allow light to be visible.

bad

Warped cutters will, when sharpened, present a mirror image of the curve to the emery paper. Thus a curvature in the middle of the cutter will result in the two outside cutter points being ground excessively promoting poor performance. It’s hard to imagine something as hard as a shearing cutter to be bendable, but they do flex. In fact, with cutters that are warped, you can close the gap with finger pressure. So when a bad cutter is put on the pendulum, the flat magnetic bar of the pendulum will make the back (unsharpened) side of the cutter flat as it is pushed against the grinder disc, and the front (sharpened side) of the cutter will bow out resulting in a poor grind.

Comb Re-pointing

The modern shearing comb is a highly specialized tool. Much thought has been given to width, tooth profile, bevels and bends. High quality tool steel permits many uses and re-grindings. Because they represent a considerable investment for the shearer, extending the combs usefulness is key. Comb re-pointing is something all shearers can do to prolong the useful life of their combs.

First, let’s get acquainted with some terms used to describe specific parts of the shearing comb.

Bevel

The curve on the bottom of the tooth end is called the BEVEL.

The very end of each tooth is called the TIP. This is what first comes into contact with fiber at the animal's skin level.

The very end of each tooth is called the TIP. This is what first comes into contact with fiber at the animal’s skin level.

The curved, unsharpened top of the tooth end is the SCALLOP.

The curved, unsharpened top of the tooth end is the SCALLOP.



When the comb is new, the scallop is fairly long, and the comb tooth is wide and thick. This example is a new medium bevel comb (about 5 mm).

When the comb is new, the scallop is fairly long, and the comb tooth is wide and thick. This example is a new medium bevel comb (about 5 mm).

As the comb is used and re-ground, the scallop starts to receed, and the comb teeth get thinner and narrower.

As the comb is used and re-ground, the scallop starts to receed, and the comb teeth get thinner and narrower.


With continued use, the scallop disappears, as the tooth is ground right out to the tip.

With continued use, the scallop disappears, as the tooth is ground right out to the tip.

Looking at the tooth profile of a very thin comb shows a dangerously pointed tip and a long, slender bevel.

Looking at the tooth profile of a very thin comb shows a dangerously pointed tip and a long, slender bevel.


Attempting to shear with an undressed thin comb will lead to injury to the animal, as the comb tooth can no longer glide over the surface of the skin. When a comb gets to this stage, it must be re-pointed before it can be used. Re-pointing is a simple albeit lengthy process whereby each comb tooth is reshaped using a pointing stone. Note the triangular shape of the stone.

Attempting to shear with an undressed thin comb will lead to injury to the animal, as the comb tooth can no longer glide over the surface of the skin. When a comb gets to this stage, it must be re-pointed before it can be used. Re-pointing is a simple albeit lengthy process whereby each comb tooth is reshaped using a pointing stone. Note the triangular shape of the stone.

When re-pointing a comb, the stone is drawn over the end of the comb tooth in a curved motion; so the bevel and tip of the tooth is changed. While individual shearers may prefer a particular tip shape, the goal is to end up with a bevel and tip similar to a new comb of that type.

When re-pointing a comb, the stone is drawn over the end of the comb tooth in a curved motion; so the bevel and tip of the tooth is changed. While individual shearers may prefer a particular tip shape, the goal is to end up with a bevel and tip similar to a new comb of that type.

 After all teeth on the comb are reshaped, the tooth end should be thinned. This will allow easier entry into fiber. Here is where the peculiar shape of the pointing stone comes in handy.


After all teeth on the comb are reshaped, the tooth end should be thinned. This will allow easier entry into fiber. Here is where the peculiar shape of the pointing stone comes in handy.

 Once the comb teeth have been reshaped and thinned, it's ready for another use. Remember, as a comb gets ground, it also gets thinner cross-sectionally. Care should be used when setting cutter lead on thin, dressed combs. On a new comb, we generally set the cutter tips at 1 to 2 mm behind the scallop.


Once the comb teeth have been reshaped and thinned, it’s ready for another use. Remember, as a comb gets ground, it also gets thinner cross-sectionally. Care should be used when setting cutter lead on thin, dressed combs. On a new comb, we generally set the cutter tips at 1 to 2 mm behind the scallop.

 On a thin comb with the scallop very short or gone, we should set cutter lead as if the comb were new with a full length scallop.


On a thin comb with the scallop very short or gone, we should set cutter lead as if the comb were new with a full length scallop.