Sunday, October 23, 2016

fanning mills

Well, I just today did my first Craig's List purchase. My kids are embarrassed but accepting of my backward "technophobe" behavior, and I still haven't bought anything through ebay, but this item was too intriguing to pass up. 

I have been researching manual threshing, winnowing, and there are not a lot of recent or current developments available. There are one or two gems shared on youtube, and lots of klutzy half hearted gadgets, but no commercial options, or detailed plans. There are a few commercially available "desktop" electrically powered seed cleaners out there, but they are pretty expensive. Of course India and China are teaming with businesses that would appear to be cranking out small scale agricultural equipment, but how does one get more detail than a fuzzy image on the screen or find a local distributor?

So I bought a fanning mill. It is in fairly good shape, and I see what needs repair, and feel confident I can make the fixes.

We are currently growing dry beans for soups, and have been hand threshing, shelling and winnowing. We have the time, and it's not that bad to sit and shell pods for a while each evening, but as we begin to do more and more food preservation and start growing small grains, our time will need to become more efficient.

The one I bought was made by Johnson and Fields, a fairly prominent brand at the time. The model was named the "Racine". The history has been hard for me to track down so far, but apparently Racine Wisconsin was a hotbed for fanning mill manufacturers, so Racine almost became a generic term for this general style of mill. At one time, there were scores of fanning mill makers, and thousands were sold every year for about 40-60 years. 

The history of fanning mills here in the states is interesting for a few reasons. They were first invented in the late 1700's, and as the fertile midwest and great plains expansion happened in the 1800's, there were thousands of small farms needing more efficient ways to process small grains for seed and for market. Going from flails and winnowing baskets to fanning mills was a big step, but once steam powered threshers started coming into agriculture, these fanning mills got tucked away in the barn, or left outside, nearly all to eventually rot and disappear. Seed cleaning is now nearly all done by commercial grain elevators, but there are still a few farmers out there, especially in the upper midwest grain belt that clean seed using electrical powered modern equipment. 

Here is the fanning  mill. You can see the overall shape and size here. 

Here is a closeup of the hand crank, gearing, and the fan blades inside the housing. I plan to change from hand crank to pedal power. The bushing where the crank mounts through the wooden support leg is wallowed out, so I need to fix that.

Here are the screens and the exit point for chaff. I've pulled out the screens for repair and to get dimensions so I can order screen with various sized holes/mesh.

A view of the fan housing from the other side. The fan axle is steel, all the other fan components are wood.

Here is the feed hopper. A screw adjustment allows setting flow rate to optimize speed without overloading the screens.

I will do another post in the future to update with repairs made and our first winnowing trials. Maybe next spring I'll plant what Gene Lodgsdon called a "pancake patch". Just enough wheat to make flour for pancakes on occasion. 


  1. Hi Steve,

    What a find! Such an interesting, but essentially simple machine. And I'm amazed what good condition the machine is in given its age. Yes, replacing the main bearing will really assist with the hand crank or pedal power (a nice idea too. Respect!). Fortunately welded mesh and aviary mesh is available in all sorts of sizes and importantly is galvanised form.



  2. Hey, I forgot to mention that the pancake patch is a great idea and I will be very interested to read of your trial as I'm also considering that option for next year.

  3. Nice. That's got the final grain cleaning spit and polish sorted, now all you need is the harvest, thresh, winnow and chaff steps to fall into place. I can foresee some more eye-rolling from the kids ;). I will be forking wheat out of a stripper into a Bagshaw winnower on Dec 4th for the local museums open day, if the weather is good. Going from 35 ton per hour on Saturday to maybe 2 ton for the whole day on Sunday will be a shock. Steve

    1. Hello Yahoo2: Sounds like you are on a larger scale than I am aiming for. I plan to scythe the wheat, got my scythe last year, and practiced a bit, but need more. I plan to make my thresher from scratch, based on the concepts I've seen on youtube a couple times. Good fun in the workshop this winter.

      I'm going to see how the fanning mill does for winnowing, but may need another step there as you point out. This is all new stuff to me, but I'm enjoying the journey.

      I had never heard of the Bagshaw, I wonder if any made it to the U.S.?

  4. OK if you are making sheaves there is a good chance you can leave most of the husk and chaff on the stem, a fanning mill will probably handle that amount of chaff.
    I will see if I can describe how we assess wheat every day for direct harvest. first grab the stem below the head with finger and thumb and bend it over till it snaps off, this gives and indication of the toughness of the straw due to temperature and humidity, we need it slightly brittle so the knives can cut the straw, you probably need your cured sheaves quite tough so the heads stay on the stalks. Then we place the head across the palm of one hand and roll it up and back with the heel of the other hand (pressing down firmly), looking to see what it takes to get the grains out, feel the head to see if grains are left in the top or bottom, gauge the amount of chaff in the hand, gently blow it off and count the grains. Heads that fill 3 grains wide or more and every husk has a grain in it are the easiest to thresh, they feel solid when you roll them and the grains kinda jam against each other and slide out. If they dont the heads are too cold or too humid or both. Heads with missing grains or only filled two grains wide in the heads feel spongy in your hand and are very hard to thresh, the grains dont grip on each other and the head doesn't collapse as you roll it, plus there is a lot of chaff for not much grain. they need to be really dry and brittle to release their grains, the chaff wont stay with the stalk at all at this dryness, so the cleaner has to deal with a lot of chaff, our machines use a shaker tray to move the grain and chaff in an even blanket of material over an edge and into the fans airsteam.
    Wheat that is cured well in sheaves or in our case, standing wheat early in the season can be threshed and most of the chaff will stay on the backbone of the stalk. As it gets later and drier everything gets more and more brittle and harder to handle, eventually the finer parts of the plant will start to turn to powder in the thresher making a lot of choking fine dust.
    with the fanning mill, if the seed is heavier and rounder you can pile on more wind and use a larger gap in the top screen because there is a large difference between the chaff and the grain eg canola, peas, wheat. things like barley and oats need a bit more finesse.
    hope this helps a little, its very hard to describe. cheers Steve