An example of the tips of sheep shearing combs. Choose wisely
I remember my first ever full day of shearing sheep with my own equipment. I had used other shearers handpieces and combs and cutters but had not had a set of my own until I started on my fist full day of shearing professionally. I was very proud of my gear. I had bought a brand new handpiece and a packet each of 5 combs and and 10 cutters, which is standard when you buy shearing blades. When I bought my gear I sat it on my mantlepiece in my bedroom and would take the gear out of their packs and smell the oil and pretend I was a gun shearer. (I really did have “Sheep shit on the brain”.)
As a learner shearer I didn’t think much about the type of combs I had bought. My father and my uncle used 5mm bevel combs as they mostly shore Australian Crossbred ewes. This type of comb was commonly used for open shearing sheep like the Crossbred or British breeds of sheep. As fate would have it my first professional shearing job was on the more dense sheep, The Australian Merino. These sheep are world famous for producing the best wool in the world. This also means that the wool is much more dense and not suited to a 5mm bevel comb but a 6mm or even 7mm bevel comb. What started out as one of the most exciting and nervous days of my life turned into a nightmare because of my comb selection.
I dragged my first merino ewe out at 7.30am and started shearing. I went to run my first blow down the belly of the sheep and found that my blades would not enter easily into the wool to make the first blow. I really had to push the handpiece hard to get the wool off. I was thinking about the sheep my father taught me to shear on, the crossbreds and thought that I must be doing something wrong as this shearing experience was way different to that.
After shearing for a whole 2 hours, I had only shorn 10 sheep and my shorn sheep looked very untidy out in the ‘count out pens’. Thankfully one of the other shearers who I had only met that morning gave me my first ever lesson on comb selection. He explained the differences between a short, medium and long bevel comb. He said without being smug or gloating, that a short bevel comb is more rounded on the tips and is used mostly on soft skinned opened shearing sheep in New Zealand, England and Europe and because it was more rounded it had a shorter bevel, which enables a shearer to glide on these soft skinned sheep without the risk of cutting them. They have a bevel of 3.5mm to 4.5mm.
A medium bevel comb is a little more pointed and suited to Australian crossbreds and British downs wool breeds. It allows for free combing on the skin of these breeds without the risk of cutting the skin. They have a bevel of 5.0mm to 5.5mm. They are just not suited to the denser merino wools. These combs won’t sit flat on the skin of a merino and tend to ride out of the wool leaving the sheep untidy and half of its fleece still on the animal. This is what had happened to me that morning.
A long bevel comb is made for the merino breeds of Australia, New Zealand, Southern Europe, South Africa, United States and South America. These combs have a longer bevel making for easier entry into denser wooled sheep. The comb will sit on the skin without riding out, leaving extra wool on the sheep. A shearer must be a little more cautious with these longer bevel combs as the skin of the sheep can be cut a little easier as the point of the comb is sharper. With guidance a shearer can easily avoid cutting a sheep by applying pressure on the comb screws instead of the tips of the comb. These long bevel combs typically come in 6mm, 6.5mm and 7mm bevels. The longer the bevel the easier the entry on denser, tougher shearing sheep.
Thankfully the shearers gave me some long bevel combs to use which made my shearing much easier and I was soon shearing 20 sheep per 2 hour run. Typically all they wanted for their help when I asked was a carton of beer. Typical Australian currency for helping a mate out.
If you have not shorn sheep before or if you have shorn sheep and have not chosen the right combs for your sheep, then I hope you will learn from my mistakes and choose the right comb for the right sheep. Don’t be discouraged from a bad first experience of shearing. It most likely is comb selection which has made a satisfying job much harder then it needs to be.